Celebrating March 22, 1877: Women First Allowed Bar Admission in Wisconsin

On March 22, 1877, the Wisconsin legislature passed a bill that prohibited denying a person admission to the state bar on the basis of sex.  The bill was in no small part due to the efforts of Lavinia Goodell, the first woman admitted to the state bar in Wisconsin.

Goodell was born in New York in 1839 and moved to Janesville in 1871 when she was 32 years old.  Goodell was interested in the law, but no law firm would take her on as an apprentice, which was a common path to becoming a lawyer in the 19th century.  So she studied law on her own.  Her dedication to law apparently won over Pliny Norcross, a partner in the Janesville firm of Norcross and Jackson and eventually Goodell worked there before striking out on her own.  Norcross was instrumental in helping Goodell gain admission to the Rock County bar in 1874.  Goodell initially did collections work, but then began to make a successful career out of doing work for women’s temperance groups.

It wasn’t until Goodell needed to appeal a case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court that her gender became an issue.  According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, at that time it was customary for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to allow any lawyer admitted to any circuit court bar to practice before it.  Not so for Lavinia Goodell.

In 1876, Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously and unequivocally denied her motion to appear before that court. (In re Goodell, 39 Wis. 232 (1876)). Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan wrote that court must be “careful of its bar and jealous of the rule of admission to it, with the view of fostering in it the highest order of professional excellence.” (39 Wis at 239.)  For Ryan, while there were statutes that governed rules for admission to circuit courts, there were no statutes governing the rules of admission to the supreme court, “leaving admission here, as it ought to be, in the discretion of the court.” (39 Wis. at 241.) Yet the petition was based on what Ryan called an “assumed right [of admission to the supreme court] founded on admission in a circuit court.” (29 Wis. at 241.)  Ryan proceeded to analyze the statutes that governed admission to circuit courts and found that while they never expressly said so, those statutes applied only to males, given the Legislature’s use of the gendered pronoun “he.”  (39 Wis. at 241.)  Ryan dismissed the argument that the “he” should be read to include “she” as contrary to legislative intent, for “[i]f we should follow that authority in ignoring the distinction of sex, we do not perceive why it should not emasculate the constitution itself and include females in the constitutional right of male suffrage . . . .” (39 Wis. at 242.)

Finding no statutory authority for Goodell’s automatic admission to practice before the supreme court based on her admission to practice in Rock County circuit courts, Ryan proceeded to deny her admission based simply and solely on her gender, for her character and qualifications were never questioned. In fact, he noted her character “raises no personal objection:  something perhaps not always to be looked for in women who forsake the ways of their sex for the ways of ours.” (39 Wis. at 240-41.)  The profession of law, according to Ryan, has to do with the well being of society and such a task requires devotion to it.  Women, in his view, needed to be devoted to home and children because that was the law of nature.  If women wanted to do something other than take care of hearth and home – “sacred duties of their sex” – such desires would be “departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it.” (39 Wis. at 245.)

According to Ryan, women had specific qualities that made them unsuited to be lawyers.  He wrote,

The peculiar qualities of womanhood, its gentle graces, its quick sensibility, its tender susceptibility, its parity, its delicacy, its emotional impulses, its subordination of hard reason to sympathetic feeling, are surely not qualifications for forensic strife. Nature has tempered  [23] woman as little for the juridical conflicts of the court room, as for the physical conflicts of the battle field. (39 Wis. at 245.)

As well, Ryan noted the law deals with “all the nastiness of the world . . . all the unclean issues.” (39 Wis. at 245.)  Here Ryan lists a multitude of issues that could be categorized criminal law and family law issues (sodomy, incest, rape, fornication, pregnancy, legitimacy, prostitution, among others), never once mentioning the multitude of less sensationalized issues with which lawyers deal, such as writing wills, handling estates, drafting contracts, organizing businesses.  Nonetheless, discussions on these nasty and unclean issues “are habitually necessary in courts of justice, which [discussions] are unfit for female ears.” (39 Wis. at 246.)

The Wisconsin Historical Society notes that one of Goodell’s biggest supporters was John Cassoday, then the Speaker of the State Assembly.  Following the supreme court’s denial of her application, Cassoday introduced a bill that explicitly allowed women to be admitted to the Wisconsin bar.  The bill passed and became law on March 22, 1877.  It amended Section 5 of chapter 189 of the laws of 1861, governing admission of attorneys to courts of record, by adding the following “Provided, that no person shall be denied a license under this act on account of sex.” 1877 Laws of Wisconsin, ch. 300.

Lavinia Goodell filed another petition for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1879. That petition was granted, with Chief Justice Ryan the sole dissenter.  She would go on to win her first case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a decision that appears unanimous. (Ingalls v. State, 48 Wis. 647 (1880))

It would be interesting to know Chief Justice Ryan’s reaction if he heard that the state’s high court contains a majority of women (four women members), one of whom has served as the state’s Chief Justice since August 1, 1996.

(Ed. Note:  Some sources list Goodell’s admission to the supreme court as being granted in 1897 – an impossibility because Goodell died March 31, 1880.)


This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Nick Zales

    This is a fascinating article on an important moment in Wisconsin history. I have seen this case cited many times. It may be one of the most mentioned – and mocked – cases our Supreme Court has ever issued.

    What is fascinating is that the decision gives us insight into how some people thought in the 1870’s. While Chief Justice Ryan sounds like a condescending cave man, he was most likely expressing a view widely held in the day. That we now see his ruling as absurd, does not mean people thought so at the time. Justice Ryan’s opinion is important in setting the parameters of the debate. As times change, so do attitudes.

    I would submit that today people express the same kinds of attitudes towards other groups they do not like or believe those groups have inherent “traits” that 100 years from now the people will find bizarre and condescending.

  2. Irene Calboli

    Let’s hope that we do not have to wait 100 years to have any group stop having “bizarre and condescending” (I personally would actually use the word discriminatory at least, if not worst) views in judging other groups. The practice and study of law is, and should, be gender, race, and national origin blind, and should allow any qualified person to practice it.

    Women are equally capable intellectually to the study and practice of law as men. The fact that 100 years ago that was seen by many (unfortuantely) as not accurate was primarily due to the fact that to admit women to public life would amount to challenge a dominant model, designed (conveniently) by men primarily, where women were not able to fully contribute to the public life with their intellectual ability. As this model has (fortunately) been changing, the practice of law (and of society as a whole) has greatly benefitted from having a more diverse group of actors, and lawyers.

    Control and power are difficult to share, and women (and other groups) have historically been relegated to secondary roles not just by their choices, but because of social norms and beliefs set by the dominant actors. These views, as it has been correctly pointed out have changed (yet they have to change far more as we are a long way from having really solved many of these issues), but it is important to remember them so as we will not make the same mistakes in the future. The fact that it would be unacceptable today to exclude a woman from the practice of law is not to be taken for granted. And it is important to remember that, in most cases, the most powerful and accomplished legal positions are occupied by men. This is primarily because the dominant actors set the rules of the game long ago, and everyone else has to play according to these rules, which are often incompatible for a balanced life where a woman can be simultaneusly an excellent lawyer, and excellent mother, and an excellent spouse/partner.

    I like to see these views and models as a trust, which in the past 100 years society has slowly started to dismantel with antitrust actions/regulations. Yet we need more antitrust regulations in this area to allow for better competition, which would benefit our society as a whole. Men and women are different in nature, but both can complement each other inside and outside the home, in the private and the public spheres. The amount of work to do is still quite large as I said. Thus, I think that it very important to remember historical figures (and heroes to me) like Lavinia Goodell. Thank you Prof. Mazzie for this wonderful post!

  3. Genevieve G. McBride (MU '83)

    It is unfortunate that the Wisconsin Historical Society does not link to the source of its information, an article also on its site, from its magazine, by another remarkable woman lawyer in state history, and in the history of this city, whom we only recently lost.

    See, for more information and enjoyment, Catherine S. Cleary’s article at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/wmh/archives/search.aspx?area=browse&volume=74&articleID=47877

    By the way, regarding Ryan’s view, no matter the small minds of many men, it was already behind the times — where he put Wisconsin — in the legal field. You can find the larger and useful context of the admission to the bar of women in other states — starting here in the Midwest — in many texts and sources on women’s history. See, for example, Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty, on Arebella Babb Mansfield of Iowa, Ada Keppley and Myra Bradley of Illinois, etc.

    And Belva Lockwood was admitted before the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court before Goodell was admitted to the bar in this state, thanks to the legislature and not to our state high court.

    (Sadly, however, she would not be the one to win her case before our high court — she died, as noted, only months after winning admittance to the bar. So Ryan was spared the sight of her before his court, “treasonous to her sex” as he deemed it to be. See: Cleary.)

  4. Melissa Greipp

    Lavinia Goodell was a pioneer, and I’m so glad to see her celebrated in this post. Since I first read about Goodell, I have wondered what interested her in studying law by herself and practicing as the only woman lawyer in the state. Maybe it was the same spirit that brought her west from New York. It must have taken great courage for Goodell to file her petition for admission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1879.

    Attitudes in the 19th and early 20th centuries were often misguided on the topic of women. I have read that around Goodell’s time some people were concerned that studious women would be less fertile. As such, some (men in particular) advocated that female students should intermittently exercise to protect their bodies from the toll of the mental exertion.

    And yet, even then, men like Norcross and Cassoday stepped forward to support Goodell (and others). Those men should be celebrated for their courage as well.

  5. Nick Zales

    Attitudes towards women, as evidenced by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, show that many in the 21st century believe in the same things Chief Justice Ryan did. You have a number of candidates who want women barefoot and pregnant, slaves to their husbands and kept in their place. What is appalling is that these attitudes are applauded not only by men but women as well.

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