“The position of lawyer was an office exercisable only by males.”
Court of Appeals of Turin, Italy in ordering the disbarment of Lidia Poët, Italy’s first woman lawyer, in 1883
When Lavinia Goodell was denied the right to appear before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1876, the Chief Justice wrote that by appearing in court a woman would “unsex” herself and commit “treason against nature.” Lidia Poët, Italy’s first woman lawyer, was subjected to very similar sentiments by an Italian court in the early 1880s.
Lidia Poët was born in 1855. After high school, she enrolled in law school at the University of Turin. She graduated with honors and wrote a thesis titled “Condition of women with respect to constitutional law and administrative law in elections.” For two years she was an apprentice in the office of a progressive senator and lawyer. In 1883 she passed a bar exam and asked the Order of Turin to admit her to the register of attorneys. Her request was granted, by a vote of 8 to 4, but two of the naysayers were so outraged that they resigned from the Order in protest.
The Attorney General of the King challenged Lidia’s registration. An appellate court ruled against Lidia and cancelled her registration. It said that even though the law regulating the legal profession did not expressly exclude women, since it did not expressly say they were included, women could not practice law.
A Buffalo, New York newspaper recounted part of the court’s reasoning:
It was not becoming to females to take the floor and get excited at court, where their opponents would not be able to maintain the respect due to the fair sex, and it might happen that the female lawyer had to speak upon questions the mention of which in the presence of respectable women was against “the accepted rules of good society.” Furthermore, how could the gravity of law proceedings be maintained if a lawyer should appear with her toga covering strange and grotesque fashionable dresses (bustles, for instance), or with a modern extravagant headgear and the like? And how could a Judge escape the suspicion of favoring a good-looking pleader of the gentle sex if the decision was given in her favor?
In addition, the court said:
The position of lawyer was an office exercisable only by males and in which females were not to meddle at all…. It would also be unseemly and ugly to see women descending into the forensic gymnasium, agitating themselves in the midst of the clamor of public judgments, becoming heated in discussions that easily transmogrify, and in which, in spite of themselves, they could be drawn beyond the limits that the gentler sex is expected to observe. … Women may well have to ponder whether it would really be an advancement, and an achievement for them to be able to compete with men, to go mixed up among them, to become their equals rather than their companions, as providence intended them to be.
To see the reasons propounded by Chief Justice Ryan in denying in Lavinia Goodell admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, click here.
Lidia Poët continued to work in the law, alongside her brother, although she could not appear in court. Like Lavinia Goodell, she also advocated for women’s suffrage, was committed to defending the rights of women and children, and was a strong advocate for prison reform. In 1888 she became a secretary of a newly formed Woman’s International Bar Association. It was not until 1920, when Lidia was 65 years old, that a law was passed allowing women to enter some public offices and she was finally able to re-register with the Turin Bar Association. Lidia never married and died in 1949 at age 94.
Netflix recently released a new series based (loosely) on Lidia Poët’s life. (See the trailer here.) A six-episode first season is available now. It is heartening to see that this unsung pioneer is belatedly getting some recognition. Dare we hope that Netflix – or someone else – might be interested in developing a series based on Lavinia Goodell’s life? We think her life story is worthy of a series, so why not dream big? Lidia and Lavinia both certainly did.
Sources consulted: Woman’s Suffrage Journal (September 1, 1883); Buffalo Evening News (December 10, 1887); The Woman’s Tribune (Beatrice, Nebraska, March 30, 1888); https://news.italy24.press/trends/360980.html; https://intpolicydigest.org/lawyers-in-heels-how-european-women-paved-the-way/
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