Recently the State Bar of Wisconsin announced the winners of the Wisconsin Legal Innovator awards. This year, the Lifetime Innovator Award was posthumously awarded to Lavinia Goodell – and I mean really posthumously.
Lavinia Goodell (1839-1880) was the first female lawyer admitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1879, after earlier having been denied admission because of her gender. She was instrumental in getting the Wisconsin governor to sign a law allowing women to be attorneys in 1877.
Want to learn more about Goodell? Check out the new digital biography that highlights her life and work: Lavinia Goodell: The Private Life and Public Trials of Wisconsin’s First Woman Lawyer.
Lavinia is best known for her 1875 battle with Chief Justice Edward Ryan, who denied her admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court solely because of her gender. He wrote:
“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 of 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 crossed swords with the wrong woman. By this point, Lavinia was 35 years old. She had wanted to be an attorney—and not a wife—since she was a teenager. She assailed Ryan’s decision in the local and national press, drafted a bill to prohibit gender discrimination in the practice of law, lobbied male legislators to pass it and a male governor to sign it, moved again for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, prevailed, argued her first case there and—just weeks before her death in 1880—won.