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  • March 04, 2015

    Every Person’s Story: Lavinia Play Chronicles Life of the First Wisconsin Woman Admitted to the Bar

    The stage premiere of a play on the life and career of Janesville attorney Lavinia Goodell comes to Madison on March 19-21. The story, about overcoming barriers and stereotypes, is one that applies to each of us, says Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

    Shannon Green

    Lavinia Goodell

    Janesville attorney Lavinia Goodell was the first woman in Wisconsin admitted to practice law both at the circuit court level and before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

    March 4, 2015 – It is a play about a 19th-century woman, but its meaning resonates with the struggles of today.

    “It happens to be Lavinia Goodell. It happens to be law. It happens to be the 19th century. But that’s only the background of the story,” said Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. “The story is every person’s story.”

    The play, premiering later this month in Madison, follows the life and law career of Janesville attorney R. Lavinia Goodell (1838-1880), the first woman admitted to practice law in Wisconsin.

    After being admitted in 1874 to practice law in Rock County Circuit Court, Goodell was prevented from arguing her case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1876 when Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan denied her admission to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court simply because she was a woman. Goodell later overcame this barrier by persuading the Wisconsin Legislature to change the law, and in 1879 was admitted against Ryan’s protest.

    “It’s a story of anyone who, for whatever reason, society has stereotypes about or has set up barriers … and how you overcome them,” said Chief Justice Abrahamson. “It’s an understanding of the ‘other.’ It’s looking to see whether your stereotypes or views are valid.”

    The play will be performed in March and April in Madison, Janesville, and Wausau. Its stage premiere is March 19 on the Evjue Stage at the Bartell Theatre in Madison.

    The play is based on Goodell’s original letters and diaries in addition to official court documents of the time. Betty Diamond, who is directing the performance, is also the playwright. Professor Emerita of Languages and Literatures at UW-Whitewater, Diamond began working on the play in 2012 with the help of a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

    Its origins stem from a conversation between Diamond and Chief Justice Abrahamson when they happened to meet after a performance in Madison. The pair first became acquainted in 1998 when Diamond directed a play commissioned by the Supreme Court for Wisconsin’s sesquicentennial celebration.

    “We agreed Lavinia would be a good topic,” said the chief justice.

    Judicial Revolution

    The play explores what it took for Goodell to overcome challenges and to open the opportunity of the legal profession to all women in Wisconsin. After she was denied her license to practice law because she was a woman, Goodell worked with supporters – including the Speaker of the Assembly – to introduce legislation prohibiting gender-based discrimination in bar admissions. Her hard-won victory made it possible for women to be admitted to practice law before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

    “The story is every person’s story,” said Chief Justice Abrahamson.

    Ryan was one of a three-justice panel that stopped Goodell from being admitted to the bar of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1876. Ryan wrote the opinion, saying that he believed women were not fit to practice law.

    Admitting women to practice law, he wrote, would “emasculate the constitution itself and include females in the constitutional right of male suffrage and male qualification. Such a rule would be one of judicial revolution, not of judicial construction.”

    Goodell, in her argument presented to the court by Assistant Attorney General I.C. Sloan, wrote in part that “a class wholly unrepresented in courts of justice can never obtain full justice in such courts.”

    Goodell was admitted three years later and just months before dying of cancer, after working to introduce a bill into the Wisconsin Legislature that prohibited denying bar admissions based on sex.

    Opening Doors

    The legacy of Chief Justice Ryan is something Chief Justice Abrahamson comes face to face with nearly every day – in the form of a bust that is displayed at the entrance of the Supreme Court’s courtroom in the Wisconsin State Capitol building.

    Each time she passes the bust, she nods and says a silent “hi.”

    Chief Justice Abrahamson poses with bust of Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan

    Chief Justice Abrahamson poses outside the Wisconsin Supreme Court courtroom in the State Capitol with the bust of Chief Justice Edward G. Ryan, who served on the Supreme Court from 1874 to 1880.

    “And I hope he’s saying ‘hi’ back and smiling,” the chief justice said.

    Ryan had a wonderful role in Wisconsin history, she said, and was a “very, very able Justice of this court,” with many excellent opinions during his tenure on the Court.

    It would be an honor to meet him, she said, although she muses whether he might reconsider the merit of his decision regarding Goodell.

    “I hope that he would be convinced now” that women should practice law, she said.

    And if she ever met Goodell, she would tell her “Thank you.

    “You opened the doors for us. And it’s our obligation to open doors for everyone who comes after us,” said Chief Justice Abrahamson.

    Goodell, she said, would be interested in the help courts provide today to those involved in the justice system – in the form of interpreters and assistance to those with different physical abilities.

    “I think she’d fit right into the modern view of helping people,” the chief justice said. “We’re all in this, and we should help each other.”

    Portraying History

    The title role will be performed by Deborah Hearst, a professional actress who has performed in Chicago and Madison since moving to the Midwest 12 years ago. Hearst has performed with the Children’s Theater of Madison, the Madison Theatre Guild, and with the University of Wisconsin Department of Theatre and Drama.

    The play is not based in realism, but is a journey through Goodell’s letters and diaries.

    Deborah Hearst

    Madison actress Deborah Hearst will portray Lavinia Goodell in the stage premiere of the play Lavinia, by Betty Diamond.

    “It’s very stylized,” Hearst said. “It’s very much a narrative.”

    While the story takes place in the past, it is relevant to today, Hearst says, with a subject involving the heart of the practice of law: interpreting existing laws in a new way.

    “That’s what lawyers do – they take the law and they say this is how it’s been interpreted throughout the past and so there’s precedent for it. But here comes this new circumstance, so we’ll have to look at it in a new way yet again,” Hearst said.

    Goodell found a way, by changing the law, to allow her to practice as a lawyer.

    It is her first time portraying an historical figure. Hearst faces the challenge of representing Goodell based on a photo and her words, since she doesn’t know Goodell’s voice and mannerisms.

    Her focus is to tell the story “the best way that I can … I focus on trying to bring it to life.”

    Now a month into rehearsals, Hearst is well-acquainted with the script. Goodell, she said, was a “fiery” person who was quite literate and well-read.

    “She also seems to enjoy being dramatic a little bit,” Hearst said.

    “You opened the doors for us. And it’s our obligation to open doors for everyone who comes after us,” Chief Justice Abrahamson said of Lavinia Goodell, the first woman admitted to practice law in Wisconsin.

    Goodell, she said, liked language and used words well to inspire others to action or to make her point.

    “She liked to use that language when she was in a trial. It’s a lot of fun,” Hearst said.

    It is also a new experience in rehearsal when the director – Diamond – is also the playwright. When a scene doesn’t work, they can change not only the acting, but also the lines themselves.

    “She can change it right there,” Hearst said.

    It adds another layer of complexity and challenge to the production, making the play a living thing.

    “It’s her (Diamond’s) work, and it’s very important to her,” Hearst said.

    The performance space adds to the complexity of the play, which premieres in the Evjue Stage of the Bartell Theatre.

    “It is a very intimate experience, because it’s not a large room. You are not separated from the actors – you are in the same space,” Hearst said.

    The performances are thanks to a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant to the Wisconsin Law Foundation in partnership with the State Bar of Wisconsin.

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