News & Events
Wisconsin’s Uncommon Women: Rhoda Lavinia Goodell
March 7, 2012
This Month for Women’s History Month we are highlighting Wisconsin women’s amazing and often overlooked contributions to Wisconsin’s rich history. You can read about some of these great Wisconsin women in WWN’s publication, Uncommon Lives of Common Women.
Today’s featured woman: Rhoda Lavinia Goodell
Rhoda Lavinia Goodell is recognized as the first woman licensed to practice law in Wisconsin. Born in New York and a graduate of Ladies’ Seminary in Brooklyn Heights, she had edited an abolition newspaper with her father for five years, had taught school for three years, had worked as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar in New York for four years, and was an active participant in the anti-slavery movement. In 1871 Goodell moved with her parents to Janesville and began to study law in her mid early thirties. Because no law firm would take her, Goodell studied law on her own and eventually made a place for herself as a copyist in the firm of Jackson and Norcross.
In 1874 Goodell was admitted to the Rock Country, Wisconsin bar. She practiced law in Janesville for a year and a half, when at the age of 36, she became the first woman to apply for admission to the bar of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. She appeared before Chief Justice Ryan in Madison on December 14, 1875.
Goodell argued that to exclude women from the full practice of law served to leave one half of the human race unrepresented in courts of justice and prevented the “free and wholesome competition of the best existing legal talent in the community.” Goodell’s case fell on deaf ears. Chief justice Ryan disallowed all of her arguments and denied her application. In his decision Ryan stated, “Womanhood is moulded for gentler and better things… Discussions are habitually necessary in courts of justice which are unfit for female ears. The habitual presence of women at these would tend to relax the public sense of decency and propriety.”
In 1877 the Wisconsin Legislature enacted a law prohibiting discrimination in the practice of law because of sex. Rhode Lavinia Goodell reapplied and became the first woman admitted to the Wisconsin State Bar in 1897. In 1880, Goodell argued and won her first case in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, shortly before she died of cancer.
Know any great Wisconsin women who deserve recognition? Send your suggestions to us at firstname.lastname@example.org