“The middle aged, grey headed individual who now addresses you is an honorable member of the Wisconsin bar.”
Lavinia Goodell, June 18, 1874
On the evening of Wednesday, June 17, 1874, after successfully passing a rigorous examination administered by three elder statesmen, Lavinia Goodell made history by being sworn in as Wisconsin’s first woman lawyer. The following day she wrote a long letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas. Lavinia’s own words recount the excitement of the event far better than any summary could do:
My Dear Girl,
The middle aged, grey headed individual who now addresses you is an honorable member of the Wisconsin bar. I was admitted last night, and am still in the first enthusiastic glow of happiness produced thereby.
I was in agony of impatient suspense all day Tuesday and Wednesday. Spent the time at the office, so as to get the latest intelligence from court, and devoted myself to reviewing.
Wednesday about 5 p.m. Mr. ___ came down from court saying that the prospect looked dubious. One case was finished, but they were rushing another one and he did not know when they would get time to attend to us. But he said that the young man from Beloit had come, and perhaps I had better go up and see him, and see if we could get the judge to approve a time.
Lavinia rushed up the hill to the Rock County courthouse.
Found the young man glad to see me, and we became good friends at once…. He was in a hurry wanting to return to Beloit that night, so his lawyer pushed up the judge to let us in, to be examined that night. Accordingly, at six o’clock, when the case or trial was adjourned, we were summoned into the august presence of the assembled court and officers, more dead than alive with fright.
The judge remarked that he had had some doubts as to the legality of my admittance, but upon studying up the subject he was convinced that I might be legally admitted.
The committee consisting of Todd, Sloan and Winans, old and able lawyers, then proceeded to examine us, which they did for more than an hour in a most excruciating manner, asking the aggravatingest questions they could think of. However, we weathered the storm very well and I do not think I suffered any by comparison with my colleague. When the committee got through, the judge proceeded to question us in quite an alarming manner, and finally required us to draft affidavits in his presence. As I had never drafted any papers without the form book before me, it was quite a trial, but I did it without mistakes.
The committee then returned with a favorable report, and we were sworn in, and signed our names on the roll of attorneys. Obtained my certificate this morning, which looks some like a diploma, and I am as pleased with it as a little boy with his first new boots. I returned home quite late and astonished my parents very much by the intelligence of my admission.
Father was intending to be present, but was cheated out of it. I had intended also to wear my good clothes on that solemn occasion, but alas! Had on the old buff linen skirt, and a two year old calico polonaise, second best hat, and dirty cloth gloves. However I was too thankful to be admitted in anything to grumble much about it.
I went down street this morning, to see about getting an office. I shall have some business cards printed and will send you one as soon as they are ready.
Lavinia’s dream of becoming a lawyer had begun in the late 1850s when she was still a teenager. In spite of many naysayers and prevailing societal norms that dictated women should stay in their own sphere, Lavinia never lost sight of her goal and at age thirty-five she achieved it. She was now a licensed attorney.
Sources consulted: Life of Lavinia Goodell, unpublished biography by Maria Goodell Frost, part of William Goodell Family Papers housed at Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.