History of the courts
Articles on Wisconsin legal history
Lavinia Goodell, Wisconsin's first woman lawyer
Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612
Women lawyers simply did not exist in the United States (or anywhere else in the world) before the 1860s. Society assigned women the role of staying at home and nurturing the family. It tolerated working women if their families needed the money, but only when they worked at factory jobs and menial labor. Professions such as the law could only be filled by men.
This attitude began to change slowly after the Civil War. A few pioneering women began to enter the professions. Lavinia Goodell of Janesville was one such pioneer. Goodell grew up in a family which supported women's rights and she was fortunate to grow up in Janesville, which had a reputation for being unusually broad-minded toward women's rights.
Goodell studied law on her own, with some help from local lawyers who regarded her efforts with mixed amusement, tolerance and admiration. In 1874 she was admitted to the Rock County bar. She was sponsored for membership by several prominent Janesville lawyers and Circuit Judge Herman Conger, though he had doubts, could find no legal rule barring her from the law.
Goodell practiced law in Janesville without incident. But when she applied for permission to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1875, Chief Justice Edward Ryan rebuffed her. Ryan was a progressive in many areas but women's rights was not one of them: he was a fierce defender of women's traditional role and had stormy personal relationships with women all his life.
Ryan held that women could not practice law because no courts had ever allowed it and the Legislature had passed no law allowing it. He then went on to give his personal seal of approval to the traditional rule:
The law of nature destines and qualifies the female sex for the bearing and nurture of the children of our race and for the custody for the homes of the world and their maintenance in love and honor. And all life-long callings of women, inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as is the profession of law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it.
Ryan's opinion triggered mixed reactions. The Rock County bar vigorously defended Goodell and criticized Ryan. In 1877 one of Goodell's Janesville supporters, John Cassoday, was elected to the Legislature. He promptly introduced a bill allowing women to practice law and used his influence as speaker of the Assembly to secure its passage.
In 1879, with the new law in effect, Goodell renewed her application to the Supreme Court. This time she was admitted. All of the justices except Ryan concluded the new law settled the issue. Ryan argued that the court had absolute power to say who could practice law before it and was not bound by the Legislature's decision, but he lost.
Tragically, Goodell died only a few years after her admission to the bar. Several other women attorneys were admitted to the bar during the next few years, but women did not become lawyers in large numbers until the 1970s.
Wisconsin made one more contribution to the campaign to admit women to the bar. In 1872 Matt Carpenter, who gained fame as one of the greatest Wisconsin lawyers of the 19th century and as a U.S. senator, represented Myra Bradwell of Illinois in her effort to be admitted to practice before Illinois courts. Bradwell's campaign received national attention and helped pave the way for Goodell's campaign.
Bradwell's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Carpenter did not persuade the high court to admit Bradwell, but he did convince the court not to go as far as Ryan. The justices held that though women had no constitutional right to practice law, neither did the common law bar absolutely women from practice as Ryan thought. State legislatures could allow women to be lawyers if they so desired, and ultimately the Illinois Legislature did so.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.