The Third Branch
Story of state’s first woman lawyer hits stage
The story of Lavinia Goodell, the first woman to be admitted to practice law before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, will play out in performances on three stages starting in March. The play, Lavinia, will be performed at Madison’s Bartell Theater March 19-21, the Janesville Performing Arts Center on March 28, and the UW-Marathon County Auditorium in Wausau on April 11. The Douglas County Historical Society Theater will hold a reading of the play on May 17 in Superior.
The play is sponsored by the Wisconsin Law Foundation under a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Wisconsin historical and legal experts will also be at each performance for special discussion sessions before or after the play. Madison playwright Betty Diamond wrote the play, thanks to a previous grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to the Director of State Courts Office and the Office of Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson. In 2013, readings of the play were held in the Supreme Court Hearing Room in the state Capitol and in Janesville.
“I’m very excited, and nervous, of course,” Diamond told the State Bar’s Inside Track in a recently published article. “The readings were so wonderful. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when it’s in full production.”
The play explores the obstacles Goodell had to overcome in order to be admitted. In a decision written by then-Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan, the Supreme Court initially refused to admit her to handle an appeal before them. As a result, Goodell successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass legislation to end gender-based discrimination, and she was admitted to practice before the Court in June 1879. Sadly, she died the next year, but her efforts helped open the legal profession to women in Wisconsin.