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Wisconsin's Women Lawyers--Past and Present

By Priscilla Ruth MacDougall
from Wisconsin Academy Review   1975


When the girl lawyer tries her first case the jury will smile affably upon her, and so perhaps will the Judge; but there is one person who will not smile, and that is the opposing counsel, who objects to a woman adversary. There are some lawyers who go so far as to say that given a woman plaintiff and a woman attorney and the defense might just as well lie down if the case be before a jury. Be this as it may, it is an ordeal for a woman at the outset of her practice to encounter in the person of the opposing counsel a courteous, well-bred gentleman whose antagonism is obvious the sooner the woman lawyer can learn to expect and desire nothing from her adversary but a fair field and no quarter, the better for herself and for all other women who may follow her in the profession... --"A Woman Lawyer's Chances" in Case and Comment Vol. 21 1914-1915


Madison Lawyers

So we find no statutory authority for the admission of females to the bar of any court of this state. And, with all the respect and sympathy for this lady which all men owe to all good women, we cannot regret that we do not. We cannot but think the common law wise in excluding women from the practice of the law... 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 lifelong callings of women, inconsistent with these radical and sacred duties of their sex, as is the profession of the law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it...1

With these words and many more about the proper role of women, Chief Justice Edward Ryan denied Wisconsin's first known female attorney, Lavinia Goodell, the right to practice law before the Supreme Court of the state in 1875.


Edward Ryan

Born Rhoda Lavinia Goodell in Utica, New York, in 1839, Miss Goodell moved with her parents to Janesville in 1871 after having been an active participant in the anti-slavery movement, a teacher, and an editorial writer for Harper's Bazaar. She studied law in the offices of Jackson and Norcross and was admitted to the bar of Rock County in 1874. She wrote her own brief, preserved in the Court's opinion, but her unsuccessful bid for admission was necessarily moved by a male attorney, I. C. Sloan.


Janesville Wisc during the Civil War

In 1877 the Wisconsin Legislature enacted a law prohibiting discrimination in the practice of law because of sex. Therefore, on June 18, 1879, Miss Goodell's application was granted by the court, with Justice Ryan again dissenting. Lavinia Goodell's law practice, although very active, was of short duration. She died less than a year later in Milwaukee.2 ...

... Although Lavinia Goodell paved the way for Wisconsin female attorneys, it was Belle Case La Follette, active suffragist and feminist, writer, public speaker, counsellor to the whole Progressive Republican movement, and wife of Governor and later United States Senator Bob La Follette, who, in 1875, became the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. Starting law study with her husband in 1871, she pursued her studies to completion in the top of her class, although her husband never finished his degree. ...


Milwaukee County Court House

Belle Case La Follette

Belle La Follette speaking

La Follettes & guests at their Maple Bluff Farm

1 In the Matter of the Motion to admit Miss Lavinia Goodell to the Bar of this Court, 39 Wis. 232(1875), at 244-245.

2 See Goodell, "A Day In the Life of A Woman Lawyer," The Woman's Journal, Nov. 10, 1877, p. 354; Reed, The Bench and Bar of Wisconsin, at 531-532; Berryman, History of the Bench and Bar of Wisconsin, at 501-503; Kohler, The Story of Wisconsin Women, at 48-49; "Mrs. Goodell's Case," Central Law Journal, Vol. 3, at 186. Reports to the State Bar Association of Wisconsin (1878-85), at p. 249.


MacDougall, Priscilla Ruth. "Wisconsin's Women Lawyers - Past and Present." Wisconsin Academy Review 21:2 (Spring 1975). 7-10.
Copyright 1975 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.
From the collection of the UW Memorial Library: AP W812 A169