Pay equity for women probably wasn’t a burning issue in 1865 for Louisa Goodwin. The 33-year-old widow from Owatonna lost her husband, 2nd Lt. James Goodwin, to a Civil War gunshot wound two years earlier.
But when Louisa became the nation’s first woman appointed as state librarian in 1865, she was offered $400 a year — two-thirds of her male predecessor’s $600 salary.
Goodwin and fellow Civil War widow Melissa Smith served back-to-back terms as state librarian from 1865-1873 — long before women librarians became common in the late 1800s.
In 1880, 15 years after Goodwin’s appointment, “the library was still an organization run by, and catering to, men,” writes Susan Orlean in “The Library Book” — her 2018 nonfiction project that weaves library history with an arson mystery that unfolded in 1980s Los Angeles.
Orlean says women in 1880 were not yet allowed to have library cards and were restricted to the Ladies’ Room. When the American Library Association formed in 1876, the group’s founders included 90 men and only 13 women. An article that year titled “How to Make Town Libraries Successful” hinted that even educated women would be willing to work for lower pay than male librarians.
All of which lends context to the pioneering role Goodwin and Smith played as state librarian in the first generation after Minnesota statehood. For an even deeper understanding of women’s experiences in early Minnesota, consider attending the Civil War Symposium on Saturday, April 6, at Fort Snelling.
This year’s program — “Working Women and the Civil War” — will dig into topics ranging from battlefield nurses to prostitution to women under fire in the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. (For more information, including registration, go to tccwrt.com/meetings/symposium.)
Louisa Goodwin and her husband came from Maine and owned a $2,000 Owatonna farm, according to the 1860 census. James died in a St. Louis hospital in 1863, a few months after being wounded in a Mississippi battle.
By 1865, census rolls show Louisa had moved to St. Paul, where the state Senate confirmed her appointment as state librarian that March. Stephen Miller, the state’s fourth governor, offered her $400 and asked her to report “as early as was convenient.”
The appointment was historic — coming four years before Michigan became the second state with a female state librarian. But the moment went unreported in both St. Paul and Owatonna newspapers, according to Patricia Connelly, a lawyer and librarian who was interning at the State Law Library in 2003. She wrote about Goodwin in the Minnesota State Law Library’s newsletter.
“It seems that the events surrounding the appointment of Louisa F. Goodwin as state librarian would whet the appetite of any controversy-smelling journalist eager to write headline-grabbing coverage of Minnesota politics,” Connelly said.
That’s because Goodwin landed the job only after the Senate rejected the appointment of George Oakes, the governor’s private secretary.
In her two years as state librarian, Goodwin lobbied for more state funds to print a new catalog, bind newspapers and acquire law books for the library at the old state Capitol. She remarried while in office, resigning in 1867 as Louisa Jones.
Her successor, Melissa Smith, might have been the first woman to apply for the state librarian job. Born in New York in 1827, she married DeWitt Clinton Smith in Michigan in 1847. By the late 1850s, they moved to a farm in Osseo
Wounded at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, DeWitt came home and became the state librarian briefly before returning to the to Army as a paymaster. He was killed while trying to defend the steamboat he was on from Confederate guerrillas in Tennessee.
He left behind Melissa and their son, Eugene. She applied for the state librarian job, prompting Gov. Miller to say he had “doubts as to whether a lady could be appointed.”
Smith moved to her parents’ home in Wisconsin, and Miller named Goodwin state librarian. Smith returned to Minnesota and replaced Goodwin in 1867. A Law Library article says her six-year run was “characterized by her intelligent and professional approach to librarianship, with a fierce determination to improve” the library’s space and book collection.
She helped secure state funds for more books and additional room — not to mention new furniture, carpet, gas fixtures and steam heat to replace the wood-burning stove in the State Library.
Like Goodwin, Smith remarried. She died in 1905 and was buried in Maple Grove.
In a letter to the governor who appointed two women as state librarian more than 150 years ago, Smith wrote: “It affords me much pleasure to be able to congratulate you and through you the people of the State, upon the improvements that have been made in the State Library.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.