“He paid me $5.00 – my first fee here.”

Lavinia Goodell, December 17, 1879

As 1879 drew to a close, Lavinia Goodell found herself depressed and in ill-health. Her move to Madison (read more here) had not gone as planned. On Wednesday, December 17 Lavinia wrote a 12-page letter to her cousin Sarah Thomas in which she poured out her frustrations.

Lavinia did have one piece of good news. She had won her first case in Madison. “One ray of sunlight has broken in upon my darkness. I won my case in justice court; beat Carpenter (a well known attorney and law professor) all to flinders – if I do say it ‘as hadn’t ought to.’”

Lavinia went on:

I sent you a “Democrat” (a daily Madison newspaper) with some account of it. The Journal didn’t condescend to notice it. I am glad if I seemed bright & witty, tho’ I didn’t feel so. Anyway everybody in the room seemed favorably impressed. There were a whole squad of young law students there, pupils of Carpenter, … and they were delighted to see me give it to the old fellow & just laughed & applauded. It must have been rather galling to him, especially as he is opposed to women lawyers, & has spoken disparagingly of my abilities. So much the worse for him now! If I am inferior & yet can beat him, where is he? Maybe he will be careful what he says for a while now.


Lavinia reported that her client, a fellow lawyer, was delighted with the outcome of the case and paid the first fee she had earned in Madison, 45.00. She also said, “People have been rather more respectful to me since, tho’ no one has called.”

Lavinia spent much of the remainder of the letter lamenting the sorry state of women in society. She commiserated with her landladies, the Misses Bright, who had two brothers who were ministers and two sisters who were invalids.

Their father gave them all a good education, started the brothers in life, & then lost most of his property. These two sisters, with all the odds of womanhood against them, supported the parents & invalid sisters by teaching & keeping boarders & took care of them in their feebleness, without any aid from the brothers…. [One brother] now sends them $150 a year but seems rather grudging & wants them to economise. He writes pious editorials & is strongly opposed to woman’s rights.

Now these women feel that they have been treated awful mean & nobody appreciates them & their relations are no comfort to them & it is hard to see their nieces & nephews lavishing everything on themselves & so little of it would make them comfortable & put them beyond the reach of care. I don’t wonder they feel so. Of course they don’t regret caring for their parents & younger sisters, but they do regret not having insisted on their brothers doing their share.

Lavinia reported that she had gone to the jail on Sunday – as she had often done in Janesville – and taught two brothers, but she said, “I don’t mean to get to caring for them; or to go on with others after they leave.”

She closed by saying:

I have rheumatism in my back, from not being warm enough where I board, in consequence of their horrid economy. Maria thinks I must be living very luxuriously, to pay $5 a week, but I don’t feel at home or comfortable.

Perhaps Lavinia did suffer from rheumatism, or perhaps her back pain was related to the ovarian cancer that would take her life at the end of March 1880. In either event, she rang out the 1870s alone in a new city, physically unwell and downhearted. Yet even in her darkest moments she was still able to enjoy beating an established male lawyer in court, and she looked forward to more such victories. Sadly, there is no indication that she ever appeared in court again.

Sources consulted: Letter from Lavinia Goodell to Sarah Thomas December 17, 1879

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