Olympia Brown

Pioneer Woman Minister and Woman Suffrage Activist

Portrait of Olympia Brown
Portrait of Olympia Brown. Kean Collection / Getty Images

Olympia Brown Facts:

Known for: woman suffrage activist; early U.S. woman minister ordained with full denominational authority (see note on page 2 of this article)
Occupation: minister, reformer
Dates: January 5, 1835 - October 23, 1926

Olympia Brown Biography:

Olympia Brown, a well-known stump speaker for woman suffrage in her own day, is known to women's history as well for being one of the first women ordained ministers in the US.

Born in Kalamazoo County, Michigan, in 1835, Olympia was raised in the Universalist faith of her family.

She studied at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts 1854-1855, and then transferred to Antioch College, which had been newly opened as a co-educational institution. The theological atmosphere of Antioch, headed by Horace Mann, was more in concert with Brown's Universalism, and she graduated in 1856. (Her family moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Antioch College was located, while Olympia was studying there. Her brother and sisters studied there too.)

While a student at Antioch, Olympia Brown helped to bring a special speaker to the college: Antoinette Brown Blackwell (no relation), who had been ordained as a Congregational minister by a parish in New York. Inspired by hearing a woman preaching, Olympia Brown wrote to all the theological schools she knew of, requesting admission.

Canton Theological School was the only positive reply, and that was cautious: Dr. Ebenezer Fisher, while writing that he would admit her as a regular student alongside the men, also told her that he did not approve of women ministers but would "leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church."

After graduation and parish experience in New York and Vermont, Olympia Brown applied for ordination to the St. Lawrence Universalist Association. Over opposition, including by Dr. Fisher (who nevetheless attended her ordination ceremony), she was ordained June 25, 1863.

Olympia Brown served Universalist churches in Marshfield and East Montpelier, Vermont; Weymouth, Massachusetts; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Racine, Wisconsin.

Before Olympia Brown began her theological studies, she had become involved in the suffrage movement, working before the Civil War for suffrage for both women and blacks. In 1867 she was persuaded by Lucy Stone and others to take a leave of absence from the Weymouth, Massachusetts, congregation, to tour Kansas working for a Suffrage Amendment. She continued her activism for women's rights, especially after moving to Wisconsin, where she was president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association for 28 years.

While still in Weymouth, Olympia Brown met John Henry Willis, a member of her congregation's Board of Trustees, and they married in 1873. She continued to use her maiden name. He moved with her to Bridgeport and Racine, where he published a newspaper and ran his own printing business.

Both their children became teachers: Henry Parker Willis a professor of banking at Columbia University and key in writing the Federal Reserve Act, and Gwendolyn Willis in classics at Bryn Mawr.

After nine years at the Good Shepherd Racine Universalist church, Olympia Brown resigned as their minister, working primarily in the women's movement thereafter, though she served as minister (part-time) in several towns in Wisconsin: Mukwonago, Columbus and Neenah.

In 1887, Olympia Brown voted in a city election, claiming that a recently-passed Wisconsin law permitting women to vote in school elections extended to all offices on the ballot. When she was refused, she helped fight the long and ultimately unsuccessful court battle.

Olympia Brown became convinced that a national Constitutional Amendment was essential to gaining the vote for women, and so she helped found first the Federal Suffrage Association (1892) which became the Federal Equality Association (1902), serving as vice-president and later president.

She later joined with Alice Paul and others in the Congressional Union, later the National Women's Party.

When Olympia Brown was finally able to vote in 1920 after the Woman Suffrage Amendment was ratified, she was one of the few suffragists active since the 1860s to do so. She had lived, since 1914, in Baltimore, near her daughter. She died in Baltimore in 1926.

Olympia Brown Bibliography

  • Olympia Brown: The Battle for Equality. Charlotte Cote, 1988.
  • Suffrage and Religious Principle: Speeches and Writings of Olympia Brown. Dana Greene (Editor) 1983.
  • The Unitarians and the Universalists. David Robinson, 1985.
  • Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers. Catherine Hitchings.

Writing in 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said of Olympia Brown:

Chief among the women who labored in Kansas in 1867, are Olympia Brown and Viola Hutchinson, - the one speaking and preaching, the other singing, her sweet songs of freedom, in churches, school-houses, depots, barns, and the open air. Olympia Brown was born in Ohio; she was a graduate of Antioch college, and went through a theological course at Canton, New York. She is the most promising young, woman now speaking in this cause. She is small, delicately organized, and has a most pleasing personnel. She is a graceful, fluent speaker, with wonderful powers of continuity and concentration, and is oblivious to everything but the idea she wishes to utter. While in Kansas she spoke every day for four months, twice and three times, Sundays not excepted.

She is a close, clear reasoner and able debater. The Kansas politicians all feared to meet her. One prominent judge in the State encountered her in debate, on one occasion, to the utter discomfiture of himself and his compeers. By some mistake their appointments were in the same place. She, through courtesy, yielded to him the first hour. He made an argument to show the importance of suffrage for the negro, with an occasional slur on woman. She followed him, using his own words, illustrations, and arguments, to show the importance of suffrage for woman, much to his chagrin, and the amusement of the audience, who cheered her from beginning to end. At the close of the meeting a rising, vote was taken, of those in favor of woman's suffrage. All the audience arose, except the judge, and he looked as if he would have given anything if consistence would have permitted him to rise also.

Miss Brown is now an ordained pastor of a Universalist church in Weymouth, Massachusetts, where she receives a liberal salary, and is honored and beloved by her people.

  • From: Eminent women of the age being narratives of the lives and deeds of the most prominent women of the present generation. by James Parton, Horace Greeley, T. W. Higginson, J. S. C. Abbott, Prof. James M. Hoppin, William Winter, Theodore Tilton, Fanny Fern, Grace Greenwood, Mrs. E. C. Stanton, etc. 1868.

    Note: As with many "firsts" in women's history, more recent research has challenged the long claim that Olympia Brown was the first woman ordained to the Universalist ministry and the first US woman ordained with full denominational authority. According to an unpublished manuscript by Charles Semowitz, 1983, summarized in David Robinson's The Unitarians and the Universalists, Lydia Ann Moulton Jenkins holds that record.

    Antoinette Brown Blackwell's ordination was earlier than both. Her ordination was by a congregation, according to Congregational Church practice, and her ordination therefore was not with denominational authority.