Lavinia Goodell: A”Departure From the Order of Nature”. (3/10)

Topic for Assignment: Representation of women in judicial positions and the impact of their presence in the Judicial system historically


Primary Source (1875-1880):

Secondary Source:

Lavinia Goodell, First Woman Appointed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court Bar

Although women were able to practice law in 19th century America, female lawyers faced incredible scrutiny for their involvement in a traditionally masculine field and often had their credibility questioned due to their gender. While opportunities for work within the judicial system has expanded over the past 200 years for women (including the inclusion of women in juries and acceptance as judges), female judicial figures face many of the same critiques and challenges their predecessors did. The story of Lavinia Goodell exemplifies many of the points brought up by Bremmer (featured in my first blog post) in her article regarding the importance of women in the judiciary and the unique challenges they face. Lavinia Goodell’s story provides a look into the history of woman’s battle for representation in the judicial sphere and how many of the same arguments made for and against women in the justice system today have existed since the introduction of women into the institution itself.

In November 1874, Rhoda Lavinia Goodell (daughter of abolitionist William Goodell), served as a lawyer in Janesville, Wisconsin and at the time was representing a widow in a probate court case. While Goodell was working on this case, a “novel question” arose and Goodell decided to appeal the case to the State Supreme Court to gain clarity on the matter. However, in order for a lawyer to do this, they were required to be admitted to a separate legal bar. While this process was essentially automatic for male lawyers, Goodell’s gender caused for her application to be carefully scrutinized by a panel of three Justices. Despite Goodell’s qualifications, her application was ultimately denied based son the fact that she was a woman. The court’s decision was heavily influenced by Justice Edward G. Ryan–an extremely vocal advocate for traditional gender roles and the maintaining of woman’s role within the domestic sphere. Goodell noted that upon entering the court to promote her case with the help of male colleague, I. C. Sloan, (she was prohibited from presenting her own case because she was a woman; essentially, she had to write out her case and then have a man present it for her), that Justice Ryan: “…bristled all up when he saw me, like a hen when she sees a hawk, and did not recover his wonted serenity during my stay. It was fun to see him! I presume I was the coolest person present.”

Although Goodell’s argument for her admittance to the bar was composed of the following three elements:

1. That the law did not inherently state women were prohibited from entry to the bar

2. That women should be admitted to the bar

3. That only two other states had denied women from entry to the bar

in relation to the topic of female representation and impact within the judiciary, I think the second element of her argument proves to be the most telling. To begin this aspect of her argument, Goodell stated that: “..the administration of justice would be better promoted by the admission of women to the practice of law than by their exclusion”. Goodell then supports her argument with the following four points: firstly, that “a class of people cannot truly obtain justice in court where it’s members (women) are not represented”; secondly, that the inclusion of women would result in “the combination of the peculiar delicacy, refinement, and conscientiousness attributed to women, with the decision, firmness, and vigor of men”; thirdly, that it was unfair to the community as a whole to “curtail free and wholesome competition of the best existing talent”; and lastly, that it was “unjust to shut anyone with the ability and interest of a lucrative and honorary profession”. Goodell shows here that she was well aware that it was the capability of her gender and not her capability as a lawyer that was blocking her from bar admittance. Due to this, she was quick to address designated female gender traits (suggesting that she was well-aware of Justice Ryan’s views on women) as beneficial to court proceedings and that women conclusively have a positive influence within the justice system. However, despite her best efforts, the “nature” of her gender was used as justification for the denial of her application to the bar primarily due to sexist stereotypes that were being prescribed to her.

Following her denial to the bar, Justice Ryan wrote a court report on the motion made and the reasoning thereof. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the report revolved around Justice Ryan’s views on women and how the the advancement of women in the judicial system would cause “judicial revolution, not judicial construction”. Aside from the overall sexist language of his report, one of the most problematic sections of his response states that: “…a bar is almost as essential as a bench. And a good bar may be said to be a necessity of a good court..on the bench, the lesson is soon learned that the facility and accuracy of judicial labor are largely dependent on the learning and ability of the bar. And it well becomes every court to be careful of its bar… with the view of fostering in it the highest order of professional excellence.” In this block of text, Ryan explicitly remarks that the inclusion of women not only would create a bad bar, but that they lack the learning ability required to ensure “professional excellence”. It can easily be seen in Goodell’s application to the bar that his statement is far from the truth; however, despite this, gender stereotypes prevailed logic and reason in this instance. In an attempt to assuage Goodell after calling her quality and intelligence into question, he then goes on to patronizingly say that: “This is the first application for admission of a female to the bar of this court. And it is just matter for congratulation that it is made in favor of a lady whose 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.” While he recognizes the accomplishment of her actions, he refers to her in the sense that a parent would a child and by doing so, denotes that women are inferior to men in this regard. Additionally, he implies that Goodell is more so an exception to normative female capability, rather than the norm itself  (this paternal treatment of women was also mentioned in Palmer’s article as well). Additionally, Ryan also directly promoted and acknowledged the masculine nature of judicial matters in the America by writing that: “If 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 to male sufferage and male qualification.” In the previous quote his true motive behind the denial of her application becomes clear. Dismissing women from the judiciary was more than action against the falsely perceived inadequacies found within the female sex at this time (and in the world today as well), it was active action taken to against female influence deteriorating and “emasculating” the status quo.

Ryan finished his report (and argument against Goodell) by concluding: “We cannot but think the common law wise in excluding women from the profession of the law. The profession enters largely into the well being of society; and, to be honorably filled and safely to society, exacts the devotion of life. 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 the law, are departures from the order of nature; and when voluntary, treason against it.There are many employments in life not unfit for female character. The profession of the law is surely not one of these. The peculiar qualities of womanhood, its gently graces, its quick sensibility, its tender susceptibility, its purity, 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. Womanhood is moulded for gentler and better things.” Here, Ryan drops all pretense of legality as the basis for the discrimination of women from judiciary and explicitly denounces the female gender. His closing argument exemplifies many of the arguments made against women throughout history by referring to “woman’s nature” in terms of gentility, purity, and sensitivity and equating those traits to weakness or inability. While Ryan’s argument may seem archaic, it proves that for as much as things change, they stay the same–although women have made significant moves forward, they still face the same false perceptions that women of the past did. Additionally, it proves that one’s gender has a significant impact within judicial settings.

Following her denial from the bar, Goodell decided to take a stand and fight against the injustices taken out against her. Immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision, Goodell went to the State Legislature and lobbied for three years to have  a bill passed that would prohibit gender-based denial of bar applicants. After the passing of her bill, in April of 1879 Goodell submitted another application to the State Supreme Court bar and was this time admitted by a 4-1 decision by the court. Who was the Justice that voted against her application? None other than Justice Edward G. Ryan.

Lavinia Goodell single-handedly proved not only that her opponents wrong, but also that the expectations attached to her gender were as well. By defying her “nature”, Goodell was able to leave a lasting influence and legacy for the women who followed after her by allowing them greater freedom and inclusion within the judicial system. Goodell’s story is much more than a tale of blatant sexism and opposition, it exemplifies the capacity, talent, and influence that women have in regards to judicial activism. Through her argument, Goodell also brought up relevant arguments and poignant points that are used still echoed by women in the judiciary today (as shown in the articles done by Bremmer and Palmer). Additionally, her case proves that women can have impact within the judiciary for the better, that female representation within the judiciary has been hard won, that women face more barriers than men do due to the preference towards masculinity found in the judicial system, and that gender is in no way a determinant of skill in judicial positions.


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