One of Wisconsin’s most important historical figures is finally getting her real face back.
Janesville’s Lavinia Goodell was the state’s first female lawyer. She was admitted to the Rock County Bar in 1874.
For more than 60 years, she has been inaccurately portrayed in history books and, more recently, on a mural on the Rock County Courthouse and on a plaque inside the courthouse.
The image in all those places reflects the likeness of another woman, who was incorrectly thought to be Goodell because a relative in the 1950s made a mistake.
Now, two truth-seeking lawyers want to correct the record and offer insight into the tireless crusader for women’s rights.
Colleen Ball and Nancy Kopp created a new and information-rich digital biography, where people can see accurate photos of Goodell and learn about the tenacious woman.
Ball is an appellate lawyer for the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office.
Kopp is a Wisconsin Supreme Court commissioner, who grew up on a farm west of Footville. She first learned of Goodell in the late 1970s when she began her career working as a legal secretary in Janesville.
While having lunch together, Kopp and Ball discovered a shared interest in Goodell. Both believed she never got the recognition she deserved and decided to shine a light on her short but pioneering life.
The women, who work full time, read original letters, diaries, court documents and period newspapers to learn about Goodell’s private thoughts and public trials.
Meet the real Goodell
Their first order of business on the new website was to correct Goodell’s photo and to explain how an imposter took over her image.
In 1959, two writers toiled to put together biographies of Goodell. One wrote to Norman Frost, Lavinia’s great-nephew, asking for a photo. Frost mailed her an image, but it was not of Goodell.
Frost’s daughter, Sarah Stamps, recognized the error, showed her father a daguerreotype of Goodell and asked why he did not send the correct image.
Her father replied that “the other lady was way better-looking anyway,” and he “seemed uninterested in doing anything” about correcting the error, Stamps said.
She did not think any more about it.
A few years ago, while looking on the web for information about the Goodell family, Stamps was horrified to discover that many sites included the wrong photo of Lavinia.
Since then, family members have attempted to correct the error.
Kopp and Ball also want to correct the public record by prominently including photos of the real Lavinia Goodell in their digital biography.
“It is essential to Lavinia’s position in history that people know her true identity,” Ball said. “The story that the unknown woman is better-looking than Lavinia would be an affront to her.”
Ahead of her time
Born and educated in New York, Goodell came to Janesville in 1871 with her parents, who were staunch abolitionists. She studied law on her own because no local law firm would take her under its wing.
Both Ball and Kopp read about Goodell early in their careers and never forgot her 1875 battle with Chief Justice Edward Ryan, the most powerful legal figure in the state.
When Goodell wanted to take a case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Ryan denied her the right solely because of her gender.
“The law of nature…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,” Ryan wrote.
He added that the profession of law is inconsistent with “these sacred duties of their sex” and a departure “from the order of nature…”
He referred at length to all of the “unclean issues” that come before the courts that are “unfit for female ears.”
Goodell attacked his response in the local and national press, drafted a bill to prohibit gender discrimination in the practice of law and lobbied for male legislators and a male governor to pass and sign it.
Eventually, she prevailed and successfully argued her first case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court only weeks before her death at age 40 in 1880.
Goodell’s legacy as a lawyer is pivotal to her life.
But she also was a respected national writer, a vice president of the Association for the Advancement of Women, a candidate for Janesville city attorney before women had the right to vote, a jail reformer and a temperance advocate. During her practice in Janesville, Goodell took on legal cases that pioneered women’s rights.
“There’s so much about Lavinia that is inspiring,” Kopp said. “Lavinia could not remember a time when she did not think women should have the right to vote. She championed the right of women to own property. She championed their right to divorce abusive husbands.”
If Goodell were alive today, she would be active on Twitter and “would have a lot to say about the #Me Too movement and how women are still struggling and not making as much money as men in parallel positions,” Kopp added.
Both Ball and Kopp are committed to making Goodell better known.
“I find her to be a very inspiring person,” Ball said. “She was like a meteorite who did so much in such a short amount of time.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.