The following is taken from Women of Courage, Ten North Country Pioneers in Profile, written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women (1989).


Olympia Brown

Determined Reformer


It is now common to see women graduating from college. This was not true more than 100 years ago when Olympia Brown was young. St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY made it possible for Olympia Brown to become one of the early women college graduates in 1863.

Born in a log cabin in Prarie Ronde, Michigan on January 5, 1835, Olympia Brown was one of four children. She was educated locally and began teaching school at 15. She searched for a college which would admit her. She was refused entrance to the University of Michigan because of her gender and instead attended Mount Holyoke College for a year. She left there and was admitted to Antioch College, which was at that time under the administration of Horace Mann, a great educational reformer. She graduated from Antioch in 1860.

While an undergraduate at Antioch College, Olympia Brown helped arrange for Antoinette Brown (born May 20, 1825 in Henrietta, New York) to come to speak to the students. Antoinette Brown was a minister in a New York Congregational church. She had studied at Oberlin College, Ohio, but was refused a license because of her sex. She became a ardent feminist and left the ministry because of conflicts over the rights of women.

Olympia Brown wrote to all the divinisty schools she could find. At that time St. Lawrence University was one of only three theological seminaries in the Unites States that would admit women students. Although reluctant to admit her, St. Lawrence agreed to give her equal status with male students. Dr. Ebenezer Fisher, president of the St. Lawrence Seminary, tried to discourage her from enrolling as he had many fears about admitting her. He felt that the ministry was not a proper place for women, and that hordes of other women would want to follow in her footsteps and bring his small, struggling seminary to ruination. But Olympia Brown was persistent and determined to be educated. She was not swayed and enrolled anyway.

At first the men in her class resented her. They too had their worries that admitting women to the ministry would diminish men's roles. However, she soon won their respect. While a student at St. Lawrence University, she had preached in Heuvelton and Ogdensburg during vacations and summer breaks. She had an invitation to assume a full pastorate in Heuvelton, but she wanted to be ordained by a full denominational authority. She thought this to be an important step in women's access to authority and roles in decision making. When the Northern Association of Universalists were in session in Malone, she successfully presented her case for ordination.

When she was ordained in June 1863, Dr. Fisher, who had first opposed her entrance to St. Lawrence, participated in the ceremony. Rev. Olympia Brown later paid tribute to Dr. Fisher and other somewhat reluctant males, saying: "This was the first time that the Universalists or indeed any denomination had formally ordained any woman as a preacher. They took that stand, a remarkable one for the day, which shows the courage of these men."

In April, 1873, Olympia married John Henry Willis, a publisher. By mutual agreement she kept her maiden name. In all her public life she was known as Rev. Olympia Brown. She and her husband had two children, a son Henry Parker Willis, born in 1874, and a daughter Gwendolen Brown Willis, born 1876. Her husband died in 1893 and Olympia managed the business until the turn of the century.

Rev. Brown held pastorates in Marshfiled and Montpelier, VT, Weymouth, MA, Bridgeport CT, and later Racine, WI. She was the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine from 1878-1887, when she resigned to concentrate on her work for women's suffrage. The church, rebuilt in 1895, was named in her honor in 1989. Olympia Brown remained an active member of the congregation after her resignation, and she often spoke from the pulpit, as did Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony, Mary A. Livermore, Mary Wright Sewell, and others.

Olympia Brown resigned her pastorate in Racine, WI because she had come to a turning point in her life. She said at the time, "As the years passed by it became more and more clear that I must give myself to the suffrage work." She had met Susan B. Anthony in 1886 and became an ardent and dedicated leader of the American Equal Rights Association created at the end of the Civil War to advance the rights of both Negroes and women.

In 1868 she took the initiative in forming the New England Woman's Suffrage Association. In 1876, she toured Kansas in the first state campaign for a women's suffrage constitutional amendment. An accomplished and forceful speaker, she gave approximately 300 speeches in that campaign. In 1878 she was elected to the presidency of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Wisconsin. She later served as President of the Federal Suffrage Association from 1903-1920.

She became discouraged by the divisions within the women's suffrage organizations and the failure of the state constitutional amendment campaigns. Suffrage had become reality in only six states. Women had waited for more than 50 years and patience was no longer a virtue. She joined the militant suffrage movement in 1913 under the leadership of Lucy Barns and Alice Paul. They rejected the state campaign approach and campaigned exclusively for a federal constitutional amendment. Their political strategy was to hold the party in power accountable for whatever happened in the women's suffrage movement.

She was one of 1,000 women who, on March 14, 1917, in freezing rain and strong winds, picketed the White House to make known to President Woodrow Wilson their demands for a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage. Many of the marchers chained themselves to the fence in front of the White House when the poilice came to break up the march. June 1920 saw her march in her last demonstration at the Republican Convention in Chicago.

Her dream was finally realized later that year when women were granted the right to vote. Olympia Brown shares a place in history with other notable women who believed in the struggle for equality for women. Among them were Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Of these pioneers, Olympia Brown was the only one who lived long enough to witness passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Women at last had the right to vote.

In the years following, Olympia Brown contnuied to summer in Racine and winter in Baltimore with her daughter. She was 91 when she and her daughter left for a tour of Europe in 1926. They visited Paris, Italy and Geneva, Switzerland on the tour. Her health failed upon their return, and she died in Baltimore on October 23, 1926. She is buried in Racine, WI.


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