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  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.)