OLYMPIA BROWN BIO
 

STANDING BEFORE US: UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST WOMEN AND SOCIAL REFORM, 1776-1936




OLYMPIA BROWN



Biographical Sketch by Laurie Carter Noble and June Edwards


Born: January 5, 1835, Prairie Ronde, Michigan

Died: October 23, 1926, Baltimore, Maryland, age 91

Buried: Mound Cemetery, Racine, Wisconsin


At the time of her death, the Baltimore Sun perfectly 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 conservatively minded Baltimoreans."(1) An active member of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the militant  National Woman's Party, one can just imagine how Olympia Brown afflicted the comfortable in Baltimore society during what were ostensibly her sunset years.


Although in her eighties, she took to the streets with the re-energized woman suffrage movement, under the leadership of Alice Paul.  From1913, until women finally received the vote in 1919, Olympia Brown was a passionate advocate for suffrage. Whether marching in front of the White House in freezing February weather to protest Woodrow Wilson's turning his back on woman suffrage, or publicly burning his speeches in Lafayette Park, Olympia Brown was relentless. She had worked tirelessly for suffrage since 1866 and was one of the few early organizers to live long enough to be able to cast her vote, legally..


With the victory of the 19th amendment came the memories of decades of struggle, defeat, and frustration, with only the occasional triumph. Beginning with her incredible campaign through Kansas, from July to October 1867, Olympia Brown's commitment to woman suffrage was heroic. Being assured by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell that all arrangements for a speaking tour had been made for her, she took a leave of absence from her parish in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to embark on a speaking tour of Kansas to convince its male voters to approve an amendment to their state constitution giving women the right to vote. When she arrived in the state, it became evident that no arrangements for either lodging or transportation had been made for her. Most of the time, she had to make her own speaking arrangements as well. Often she addressed crowds that were openly hostile. Nevertheless, undaunted, resourceful and determined to succeed, she delivered more than 300 speeches. In spite of the fact that only one third of the voting population approved the amendment, she was not discouraged. Susan B. Anthony wrote her an admiring letter in gratitude for her efforts, telling her that her work was a glorious triumph, regardless of the final vote tally.


The spirit, courage, optimism and sheer strength of will which made it possible for her to persevere for the cause of woman suffrage in Kansas characterized so much of what she did throughout her life. Susan B. Anthony's assertion that "failure is impossible" was applied by Olympia Brown many times. Whether it was finding a divinity school willing to accept her, or finding a congregation willing to call her to its ministry, or finding a way to protect her financial interests in her deceased husband's business, she was simply determined to prevail. And she did.


Even becoming an effective speaker, whether in the pulpit or on the platform, was not an easy path for her. Small in stature, she had a thin and high pitched voice that would have made it impossible to hear her (or take her seriously). In Boston she found an elocution teacher, Dio Lewis, who taught her how to train and project her voice. He also recommended a series of gymnastic exercises which she followed rigorously. For the rest of her life, she worked on her speaking, often declaiming to her beloved garden or to her kitchen utensils. Finally, through countless hours of training, she became a sought after speaker who could capture the attention of the rowdiest crowds from the platform and the most somnolent parishioners from the pulpit.


The eldest of four children, she was born to Asa B. Brown and Lephia Olympia Brown, who moved from Vermont to Michigan shortly before she was born. Her parents were Universalists and her mother particularly was influenced by the teachings of Hosea Ballou. Both her mother and father believed in an education for girls as well as boys (there were three daughters and one son in the family). Asa Brown built a school so that his children and those of his neighbors could receive a formal education. He then raised subscriptions from other families so that a teacher could be hired. Later, at an academy in Schoolcraft, Michigan, Olympia was indignant to find that girls were not permitted to debate in public, it being deemed "unladylike." She mounted a vigorous protest, but to no avail. Nevertheless, the seeds for further advocacy were sown.


Encouraged by their parents to pursue an education, Olympia and her sister enrolled at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts in 1854. Unfortunately, the repressive atmosphere, with its emphasis on unquestioned obedience and the intolerant religious orthodoxy that prevailed at the time were totally unsuited to the Brown daughters, who left after one year.


In 1856 Olympia Brown decided to enroll at Antioch College, a co-educational institution newly founded at Yellow Springs, Ohio. Its president was Horace Mann, a Unitarian and advocate of the Common School movement that established free schools for boys and girls of all social (though not all racial ) groups. Antioch was a far more felicitous choice for her than was the austere Mount Holyoke and she received her B.A. degree in 1860. While there, she arranged for Antoinette Brown Blackwell, a newly ordained Congregational minister, to come to preach. This proved to be a prophetic choice. In her autobiography she writes, "It was the first time I had heard a woman preach and the sense of victory lifted me up." (2)


Determined to become a minister, she convinced St. Lawrence University's theological school to admit her in1861, even though its president ardently tried to dissuade her from coming.  Her fellow  ministerial students  ridiculed her for her petite size and for her small voice. Admitting women to the ministry at that time was thought to set a dangerous precedent, since they could bring down the cost of preaching. Interestingly, Olympia Brown's graduation from St. Lawrence University's theological school in 1863 is now regarded as a source of great pride. On the centennial of her graduation and ordination, a plaque was unveiled in honor of this formidable woman and her achievements. It reads: "The flame of her spirit still burns today."


Olympia Brown is generally recognized as the first woman in America to be ordained to the ministry of a regularly constituted ecclesiastical body. (3)


In 1864 Olympia Brown took her first pastorate at the Universalist church in Weymouth, Mass. Six years later she accepted a call to the Universalist church in Bridgeport, Conn. During this ministry she met John Henry Willis and they were married in 1873. He fully supported her chosen career and they agreed to have her continue to use her birth name. Throughout a long and loving marriage, they admired and respected one another. A man of principle and courage, Willis took great pride in his wife's accomplishments and in her commitment to human rights and social justice. Even when her work took her away from home, sometimes for extended periods, her husband encouraged his wife to pursue the path that she felt she must.


The couple had two children. Henry Parker Willis, born in 1874, who became a professor at Columbia University, and was one of the principal framers of the Federal Reserve Act. A daughter, Gwendolen Brown Willis was born in 1876. She became a teacher of classics at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, Maryland. Thanks to her diligence, most of her mother's correspondence, sermons and writings have been preserved and were donated by her to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. She also worked mightily to get her mother to write her autobiography. Although a gifted and prolific writer, Olympia Brown, found herself a less than fascinating topic. She finally produced a brief sketch of her life and was so uninterested in the project that it was left for her daughter to complete after her mother's death. As she told Gwendolen, she would much rather be actively trying to right wrongs in the present than sit still and reconstruct the past.


The Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd (now named, in her honor, the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church) in Racine, Wisconsin called her to be its pastor in 1878. After moving to Racine, John Henry Willis entered the publishing business, becoming principal owner of the Racine Times.


At the age of 52, when her children were almost grown, Olympia Brown decided to leave full time ministry to dedicate herself to the work of woman suffrage. Elected president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association in 1884, she served in that position until 1912. When the national woman suffrage movement split in l869, she tried to reconcile the two groups.  However, feelings ran too high for a rapprochement to be effected until many years later. Because she believed suffrage could succeed best through a federal amendment to the Constitution (as did Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) rather than on a state by state referendum (as advocated by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell), her work focused on the National Woman Suffrage Association and she was chosen its vice-president in 1884.


A skilled organizer and sought after speaker, she was active in many suffrage conventions and at the forefront of efforts to secure the right for women to vote. Between 1889 and 1916, she campaigned in South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas and Maryland, in addition to her considerable efforts in her home state of Wisconsin.


Her Universalist beliefs in a gentle and loving God and in the dignity and worth of all human beings informed not only her preaching but her commitment to opportunities for women in education, finance, politics, law, medicine and ministry. An outspoken advocate of equality in all things, her spirit still burns today.



ENDNOTES


1.Allen Johnson, ed. Dictionary of American Biography.

(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), III, p.151.


2.Edward T. James, ed. Notable American Women, 1607-1950.

(Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,

1971), I, p. 257.


3.It may be that this honor belongs to Lydia Ann Jenkins, who was apparently granted a Letter of Fellowship in 1858 and ordained with her husband by the Ontario Association of Universalists in Geneva, N.Y. in 1860. Also Antoinette Brown Blackwell, who was later fellowshiped as a Unitarian minister, was ordained in 1853 by the Congregational Church of South Butler, N.Y. However, she was ordained without the approval of the Congregational General Conference.