Olympia Brown (January 5, 1835-October 23, 1926) dedicated her life to opening doors for women. Among only a handful of women to graduate from college, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Antioch in 1860 and three years later became the first woman graduate of a regularly established theological school: St. Lawrence University. She was ordained a Universalist minister, the first woman to achieve full ministerial standing recognized by a denomination. As a young minister, she took an active role in the women’s suffrage movement and was one of the few original suffragists who lived to vote in the 1920 presidential election.
The first of four children, Olympia Brown was born to Vermont Universalists Asa B. and Lephia Olympia Brown, pioneers in Prairie Ronde, Michigan. Determined to give his children a good education, her father built a schoolhouse on his farm. He and Olympia rode from house to house to enlist their neighbors’ donations toward hiring a teacher. The Brown children later attended school in the nearby town of Schoolcraft. Olympia was determined to go to college and persuaded her father to allow her and a younger sister to enter Mary Lyons’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. After an unhappy year in the rigidly Calvinistic atmosphere there, Olympia went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Horace Mann was president. Her experience there was so positive that her family moved to Yellow Springs for all four children to get a good education.
While at Antioch, Olympia Brown invited Antoinette Brown (no relation) to lecture and preach. “It was the first time I had heard a woman preach,” she remembered, “and the sense of victory lifted me up. I felt as though the Kingdom of Heaven were at hand.” Her next step was theological school, even though theological schools at that time did not welcome women.
“The ministry was the first objective of her life,” wrote Gwendolen Brown Willis, “since in her youthful enthusiasm she believed that freedom of religious thought and a liberal church would supply the groundwork for all other freedoms. Her difficulties and disillusionments in this field were numerous. That she could rise superior to such difficulties and disillusionments was the consequence of the hopefulness and courage with which she was richly endowed.”
The Unitarian School of Meadville, Pennsylvania, replied to her request for admission saying that “the trustees thought it would be too great an experiment” to admit a woman. Oberlin replied that she could be admitted but could not participate in public exercises. Finally, Ebenezer Fisher, President of the Universalist Divinity School at St. Lawrence University, offered her admission but added that he “did not think women were called to the ministry. But I leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church.” This, Olympia thought, “was exactly where it should be left. But when I arrived, I was told I had not been expected and that Mr. Fisher had said I would not come as he had written so discouragingly to me. I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement.”
Entering divinity school in 1861, she completed her course of study in 1863. She had to convince those opposed to women in the ministry that they could complete the required course of study as commendably as she had. Then she had to convince the reluctant ministers to ordain her and allow her to be called to the parish ministry. Despite considerable opposition, Brown prevailed in both goals. This determination characterized her throughout her long and fruitful life.
In 1864 she was called to her first full-time parish ministry in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts. At this time Olympia Brown became active in the women’s rights movement, working with Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and other leaders. In the summer of 1867, at the urging of Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, she agreed to take on a rigorous campaign in Kansas to urge passage of a woman suffrage amendment. The Weymouth Landing parish generously gave their minister a four-month leave of absence to fulfill this commitment.
Although Henry Blackwell assured Brown that he had made all the arrangements for her campaign, she arrived in Kansas to find that little if anything had been done in her behalf. She would have to make her own travel arrangements, find lodgings in each town, advertise her speaking engagements, secure halls in which to speak and deal with those determined to disrupt her speeches. Often she had to face down hostile townspeople who wanted to discredit her and the cause of woman suffrage. Brown took such obstacles as challenges to be surmounted and kept her eyes firmly on her goal. In spite of unbearable heat and brutal winds, she persevered and mounted a spirited campaign, delivering more than 300 speeches. She was not discouraged when only one-third of the voting population (all male, of course) approved the amendment. In spite of the final vote Susan B. Anthony considered Olympia Brown’s work a glorious triumph.
By 1870 Brown was ready for another challenge and accepted a call to the Universalist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut, “thinking it a larger field of usefulness.” Even though the church had many members, “some had lost interest and there had even been an inclination to close the church.” She also found that “unlike my Weymouth people, they had no such breadth of vision.”
Although her mother and her friends advised her against marriage because they thought it would interfere with her career as a minister, she married John Henry Willis in 1873. She “thought that with a husband so entirely in sympathy with my work, marriage could not interfere, but rather assist. And so it proved, for I could have married no better man. He shared in all my undertakings.” As did Lucy Stone, Olympia Brown kept her maiden name, with Willis’s agreement. It was a most felicitous marriage. When her husband died, unexpectedly in 1893, she wrote: “Endless sorrow has fallen upon my heart. He was one of the truest and best men that ever lived, firm in his religious convictions, loyal to every right principle, strictly honest and upright in his life,….with an absolute sincerity of character such as I have never seen in any other person.” A son, Henry Parker Willis, was born in 1874 and a daughter, Gwendolen Brown Willis, in 1876.
During her maternity leave for her first child, a faction at the Bridgeport church started agitating to terminate her ministry. As she writes in her autobiography: “although (or because) my parish gave me a vote of endorsement passed by a large majority, these enemies continued….calling in ministers from neighboring churches…promulgating the doctrine, ‘what you need here is a good man.'”
At the end of 1874, Brown decided to resign her ministry. She and her husband stayed in Bridgeport for two more years, during which time her daughter was born. With characteristic spirit, Olympia recounts “after this tempestuous time at Bridgeport, I considered where I should go to continue the work of preaching, to which I had, as I thought, a distinct calling.”
Discovering that a Universalist church in Racine, Wisconsin, was in need of a minister, she wrote to Mr. A. C. Fish, the clerk of the society, to offer her services. He wrote back that the parish was in an unfortunate condition, thanks to “a series of pastors easy-going, unpractical and some even spiritually unworthy, who had left the church adrift, in debt, hopeless and doubtful whether any pastor could again rouse them.” This was precisely the kind of challenge that Olympia welcomed. It is also true that her options were limited.
Of her career as a parish minister she writes: “Those who may read this will think it strange that I could only find a field in run-down or comatose churches, but they must remember that the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry with whom I, at first the only woman preacher in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do.”
With two small children to support, John Willis closed his business in Bridgeport and went ahead to Racine to find a house and employment. This type of support for his wife’s endeavors was typical of him throughout their married life. He became one of the owners of The Racine Times-Call newspaper and worked actively to support his wife’s ministry.
Rejuvenating the Universalist society in Racine was not a task for the faint of heart, but Brown set about it with her usual competence, dedication and practical skill. Not only did she breathe new life into the society, but she also established it as a center of learning and cultural activities. Bringing famous speakers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony, she added immeasurably to the life of the surrounding community.
After nine years of rebuilding, she felt that her parish was able to sustain itself, and she made a momentous decision. At the age of 53 she decided to make a career change. Though she would continue to work as a part-time minister in smaller Wisconsin congregations, Brown left full-time ministry to become an activist for women’s rights. Because her new role necessitated a great deal of travel, she was fortunate to have both a supportive husband and a capable mother at home to help care for the family.
Olympia Brown was a tireless and effective organizer for suffrage initiatives at the state and national level, leading the Wisconsin Suffrage Association for many years and serving as Vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Like Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she promoted a broad range of reforms aimed at women, Believing that education was the key to women’s advancement, she worked tirelessly to have women admitted to colleges and professional schools.
By the 1890s Brown was convinced that the suffrage movement was languishing under what she considered the lackluster leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw. Little progress was being made toward a suffrage amendment, the older suffragists had either died or were being ignored, and in her opinion the fire seemed to have gone out of the movement. Not until Alice Paul and Lucy Barnes started the Woman’s Party in 1913 did Brown feel optimistic about the suffrage cause. She welcomed the more confrontational and street-wise tactics of the Woman’s Party and was elated with their strategy of mounting large vigils and demonstrations to mobilize support. When she was asked to be a charter member of this more militant and energetic group, she stated “I belonged to this party before I was born.”
Brown joined in many of the demonstrations organized by the Woman’s Party. In freezing rain, in bitter cold, in spite of dangerous confrontations and little police protection from hecklers, the octogenarian minister from Wisconsin was there. During one memorable demonstration, protesting Woodrow Wilson’s turning his back on the suffrage amendment, she publicly burned his speeches in front of the White House. When the suffrage amendment was finally passed in 1919, Brown was one of the few original suffragists who was still alive to savor the triumph. She voted in her first presidential election at the age of 85.
Speaking in the Racine church in the fall of 1920 on the changes that had taken place since her resignation as minister, she said, “the grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal.”
In this sermon, she also testified to the importance in her life of Universalism, “the faith in which we have lived, for which we have worked, and which has bound us together as a church. . . . Dear Friends, stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important to you as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before you the loftiest ideal, which has comforted you in sorrow, strengthened you for the noble duty and made the world beautiful for you.”
After the suffrage victory, Brown dedicated herself to promoting world peace and became one of the original members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
In her later years she spent summers at her lakeside home in Racine and winters in Baltimore with her daughter Gwendolen, who taught Greek and Latin at the Bryn Mawr School there. She died in Baltimore at 91 and was buried beside her husband in Racine’s Mound Cemetery.
At the time of her death, The Baltimore Sun captured the independence, fearlessness and passionate commitment to justice of the Reverend Olympia Brown by stating; “Perhaps no phase of her life better exemplified her vitality and intellectual independence than the mental discomfort she succeeded in arousing, between her eightieth and ninetieth birthdays, among the conservatively minded Baltimorans.”
The church Brown helped to vitalize in Racine has been re-named the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church. In 1975 a group of parishioners mounted a successful campaign to have an elementary school in Racine named in her honor. Nothing would have made this proponent of education, especially for women, prouder.
To honor the centennial of her ordination in 1963, the Theological School at St. Lawrence University unveiled a plaque which reads in part:
Preacher of Universalism
Pioneer and Champion of Women’s Citizenship Rights
Forerunner of the New Era
The flame of her spirit still burns today.
Olympia Brown’s papers and documents relating to her work are held at the Schlesinger Library, the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; and in the papers of the National Woman’s Party at the Library of Congress. Brown’s writings include “Hand of Fellowship” and “Installation Sermon,” Services for the Ordination of the Reverend Phebe A. Hanaford as Pastor of the First Universalist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, Feb. 19, 1868 (1870); “The Higher Education of Women,” The Ladies’ Repository, A Universalist Monthly Magazine for the Home Circle (1874); “Crime, Capital Punishment and Intemperance,” Papers and Addresses, Columbian Congress of the Universalist Church, Chicago (1893); Acquaintances Old and New Among Reformers (1911); and Democratic Ideals; A Memorial Sketch of Clara B. Colby (1917). Some of Browns works are collected in Dana Greene, editor, Suffrage and Religious Principle: Speeches and Writings of Olympia Brown (1988). “Olympia Brown: Two Sermons: ‘But to Us There is One God’ and ‘Man Does not Live by Bread Alone,'” with an introduction by Ralph N. Schmidt, was published in The Annual Journal of the Universalist Historical Society (1963). Printed in the same issue was “Olympia Brown: An Autobiography,” edited and compiled by Gwendolyn Brown Willis. Most of the quotations in the above article come from this source.
There is a full-length biography: Charlotte Cote, Olympia Brown: The Battle for Equality (1988). Other biographical studies of Brown include Charles E. Neu, “Olympia Brown and the Woman’s Suffrage Movement,” Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer, 1960); Nancy Gale Isenberg, “Victory for Truth: The Feminist Ministry of Olympia Brown,” a master’s thesis for the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1983); and Claudia Nichols, “Olympia Brown: Minister of Social Reform.” Occasional Paper (Unitarian Universalist Women’s Heritage Society, 1992). The Universalist Historical Society issued Olympia Brown: A Centennial Volume Celebration Her Ordination and Graduation in 1863 (1963). See also E. Larkin Brown, “Autobiographical Notes,” edited by A. Ada Brown. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections (1905). Short biographies are also available in Famous Wisconsin Women, volume 3 (1973); Catherine F. Hitchens, Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers, a special issue of the Journal of the Universalist Historical Society (1975), and Dorothy May Emerson, editor, Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936 (2000).
Article by Laurie Carter Noble
Posted May 28, 2001