About Olympia Brown
Suffragist, first theological school alumna, first female full-time ordained minister
Olympia Brown was born on January 5, 1835 in Prairie Ronde Township, Michigan, the first of four children born to Asa and Lephia Brown. The Browns were farmers in what was then considered frontier land. Olympia's parents were also the great-great-uncle and -aunt of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
Lephia raised her children in a household that regarded religion and education as very important; this is evident from the building of a schoolhouse on the Brown territory. The drive for education instilled by Lephia had compelled Olympia to finish high school and advance to the university level. Olympia and her younger sister Oella decided to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in Massachusetts. Olympia then studied at Antioch College in Ohio.
Once Olympia Brown finished her schooling at Antioch, she decided her calling was to be a minister and was accepted to the Theological School of St. Lawrence University. Even after becoming the first female graduate of an American theological school, Brown still met opposition to her ordination. She determined that in order to be ordained, she needed to appeal directly to the Universalist Council. Brown traveled to nearby Malone, New York, to present her case; her appeal was a simple plea for equality. The board, which had already heard some of Brown’s sermons, agreed with her.
On June 25, 1863, Olympia Brown became the first fully-ordained female minister. She went on to pastor in churches at Marshfield and Montpelier, Vermont; Weymouth, Massachusetts; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Racine, Wisconsin.
From Brown’s childhood and the abolition movement to Brown’s own experiences with discrimination, Brown had always been aware of the quest for equal rights. Due to Brown’s strong speaking skills and beliefs, Susan B. Anthony continually sought her involvement. With the encouragement of fellow Mount Holyoke alumna Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, Brown decided to travel to Kansas in order to speak on women’s rights. Over the course of the summer, Brown delivered more than 300 speeches despite facing many hardships. Even though this was a great experience, Brown decided to return to ministry, until a change of heart in 1887.
Now that Brown had dedicated her life to the movement, she looked to do all she could. This included forming the New England Women’s Suffrage Association, leading the Wisconsin Suffrage Association, and becoming the president of the Federal Suffrage Association from 1903 to 1920.
Despite all this action, Brown saw few changes take place. Brown believed that the second generation of suffragists suffered from poor leadership and erroneously focused their efforts at the state level. It was not until 1913, when Brown was invited by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to join the newly formed Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later called the National Woman's Party), that Brown had confidence in the movement. Her new group looked to pass an amendment at the federal level and also vowed to use a more radical approach.
These new tactics led to the women’s right-to-vote amendment being presented to Congress, marches in front of the White House, and massive press exposure leading to more support for the movement. Eventually, Congress passed the bill, but with ratification still needed, Brown along with others hit the campaign trail one last time. Olympia Brown’s last march was at the 1920 Republican National Convention. The 19th Amendment was finally ratified on August 25, 1920, marking the first time that Olympia Brown along with countless other women were able to vote.
Olympia Brown was married to John Henry Willis in 1873. Olympia, who chose to keep her maiden name, and Willis, reared two children, Henry and Gwendolyn. Both of their children grew up to become teachers.
Olympia Brown spent her last years with her family in Racine, Wisconsin, where she continued to support women’s rights and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She died in Baltimore, Maryland on October 23, 1926.
She was honored in 1999 with induction into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.
Olympia Brown's Timeline
January 5, 1835
Prairie Ronde Township, Michigan, United States
South Hadley, Massachusetts, United States
October 23, 1926
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
Yellow Springs, Ohio, United States
Canton, New York, United States