Rock County Stories of Temperance and Women’s Suffrage

Rock County Stories of Temperance and Women’s Suffrage

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Women’s suffrage and temperance campaigns entwined in their fight for social change in late 19th century Wisconsin. Fighting for temperance against a powerful brewing lobby, convinced many Wisconsin women that true reform required the power of their vote and not advocacy alone, cementing their commitment to suffrage. The lives of two Rock County suffragists and temperance crusaders, Lavinia Goodell and Frances Willard, exemplify how temperance experience strengthened the legal, communications and organizing skills crucial to the victory of women’s suffrage decades later.  

Lavinia Goodell(1840-1880) set forth to become the first woman lawyer in Wisconsin but no law firm in Janesville would accept her for study so she “read law” on her own and was admitted to the Rock County bar in 1874. She organized and effectively used the press to mount temperance crusades in Janesville and won her first case for temperance women in a Jefferson County court in 1874. The following year, Goodell was denied the right to practice before the Wisconsin Supreme Court by Chief Justice Ryan, who argued that women were not fit by nature to practice law. Goodell persevered, winning her bid for the state bar in 1879 having successfully appealed her case with the help of Assembly Speaker John Cassoday, also of Janesville. Lavinia paved the way for all future Wisconsin women lawyers.

Janesville native and renowned social reformer Frances Willard (1839-1898) left the presidency of Evanston College for Women in Illinois to assume leadership in the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1879. Willard’s “Do Everything” leadership style initially met resistance from those who felt joining forces with the suffrage movement would divide effectiveness. In contrast, Willard felt the ballot would empower and protect women against the dangers of intemperate men. Suffragists benefited by emulating the WCTU’s use of parliamentary process, strong leadership models, and grassroots strategies. A statue of Frances Willard was the first depicting a woman placed in the US Capitol National Statuary Hall Collection.

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