Pam Bergen’s sermon about her Great Aunt, Rev. Olympia Brown, November 21, 2010
I want you to picture Lafayette Park across from the White House in December, 1918. The war is over and President Wilson is on his way to Paris for the Peace Conference. Members of the Women’s Rights Party are picketing in front of the White House. It is dark and very cold.
Torches are lit and the suffragists are holding banners asking for the right to vote. This is not the first time that large groups have picketed here, but this is an extraordinary occasion. A large urn has been placedin Lafayette Park and the logs within it have been lit. One of the suffragists announces that they are going to burn President Wilson’s speeches on democracy and freedom because he did not believe these principles applied to women. The Reverend Olympia Brown moves to a position beside the urn. At 83, this old friend and colleague of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is still fighting for a woman’s right to vote. She thrusts a bundle of President Wilson’s speeches into the flames and declares “America has fought for France and the common cause for liberty. I have fought for liberty for seventy years, and I protest against the President’s leaving this country with this old fight here unwon.”
Who was Olympia Brown? How did she get to that place in the battle for a woman’s right to vote? And why am I talking to you about her? Olympia and my great grandmother (Marcia Brown Howland) were sisters. As a child I knew she was the first woman to be ordained at an accredited theological college and an avid fighter for women’s suffrage. Her role as a suffragist is what made her such a remarkable person aided by her status as a minister. I have learned that she was a petite woman, barely five feet tall with a high, faintly squeaky voice that she overcame by taking elocution lessons. Olympia would practice her elocution lessons in her garden overlooking Lake Michigan to overcome the sound of the surf . “They toiled and moiled and boiled the boy and found no joy. Olympia loved to work in her garden on the shores of Lake Michigan, her favorite dishes were New England Baked Beans and Strawberry Shortcake. She always wore black with a lace collar, but she yearned to have a plum colored dress which she finally got in 1921.
She was born in 1835 near Schoolcraft, Michigan. Her parents, Asa and Lephia Brown had left Plymouth Notch, Vermont because Asa’s brother had told them what wonderful farmable land was to be found in Michigan . It was an 800 mile trip by wagon and Olympia, their first child was born soon after theyarrived in Schoolcraft. By 1842, three more children (Oella, Marcia (my great grandmother)and Arthur had been born. Lephia Brown was a Universalist and made certain that herchildren grew up in a home that respected education and religion.
When Olympia was fourteen and attending the local public school she became aware of the different lesson requirements for boys and girls. Debating was required for boys , but girls were only allowed to read from prepared papers. Lephia had always told her children that girls and boys should be treated equally. Eager to take part in a debate she asked a classmate to propose : That girls be allowed to debate and give speeches as the boys did. The teachers responded with surprise and disbelief. “We will leave the class if the students persist in such a resolution.” Her first attempt to promote sexual equality was unsuccessful.
At nineteen Olympia and her sister Oella went off to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Mount Holyoke had been founded in 1836 and had developed a very strict list of rules and course of work/study for its students. No sitting on beds, looking out of windows standing on the portico or talking in the halls. It was a strong Calvinist institution and teachers at the school were zealous evangelists convinced that hellfire and brimstone were in everyone’s future. Olympia, as a Universalist, “asked the question that was to guide her entire future life. “Why don’t preachers dwell on God’s love when that was such a motivating force behind Christ’s teachings?”
After finishing a frustrating year at Mount Holyoke Seminary the girls returned to Schoolcraft. Olympia applied to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Horace Mann was the president. It was 1856 and the first Woman’s Rights Convention had been held in 1848. Olympia wanted to invite Antoinette Brown, one of the suffragist leaders to come to Antioch as a guest speaker. The administration declared “There are no woman speakers comparable to the men that we have selected.” Olympia organized a committee, raised the money and wrote to Antoinette Brown. She came, spoke on Saturday night at the college and Sunday at a local church. Both events were a great success and Olympia was moved to write “The sense of the victory lifted me up. I felt as though the Kingdom of Heaven were at hand.”
By the time she graduated in 1860 she was determined to become a minister. In March she was accepted at St. Lawrence, the Universalist Theological School in Canton, New York. The acceptance letter emphasized that “she would have all the opportunities that are offered by the school; must bring testimonials as to your moral and religious character, believe in the Holy Scriptures , and must have a fixed determination to devote your life to the Christian Ministry.”
She arrived in Canton in 1861. The Civil War had begun and students were busy making speeches about freedom and liberty; Olympia challenged the speakers to include women while they railed against slavery. However, the young men barely considered women as human beings with any rights. She realized that working for women’s rights would have to wait until after she graduated and was ordained.
She graduated in 1863. The Northern Universalist Association was meeting in Malone, NY and Olympia decided to appeal directly to them for her ordination. It was not an impartial group, but she persevered ending her argument by asking “that the board members be fair and impartial and that they judge her solely on her merits, not on her sex.” The board agreed to her ordination and set the date, June 25, 1863.
Over the next four years she would serve as pastor in churches in Vermont and Massachusetts and begin to increase her contact with the woman’s suffrage movement. In 1867 Kansas was attempting to pass two amendments to their constitution. One, giving negro men the right to vote and the second, to enfranchise women. Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony asked Olympia if she would spend the summer traveling around Kansas speaking in favor of women’s rights. She was assured that the Republican Party leaders there would see to housing and transporting her from town to town. However, a good deal of the time no one knew she was coming and a meeting would be organized rather haphazardly and a place for her to stay was also a bit uncertain. The summer was spent traveling by wagon through territory without roads following an indistinct trail over the prairie. She wrote in her memoirs: “We generally lost our way and would travel round and round, not knowing where we were. Many a time darkness overtook us wandering in uncertainty over the prairie, and yet, strange as it may seem, I never failed to meet an appointment during the whole campaign, and however late in the evening we arrived, we always found a good audience waiting for us. … There were few stage routes or liveries; …Consequently I had to ask at each meeting for some conveyance to the next appointment.” At the same time Indians were on the war path in the western part of the state which added to her unease. The editor of a local paper, The Border Sentinel, wrote:
“With her talent and education, she has great physical power of endurance, lately speaking two or three times each day in hottest weather, traveling from twenty to fifty miles each day with only an average of about four hours sleep, and her speeches from one to two hours in length, without apparently the least fatigue, and weighing only ninety-one pounds…Eloquent, hopeful and brave, with religion as the basis of all her actions, and piety her leading trait, she is the best pleader for woman that we have yet seen before the public.”
Unfortunately, enfranchisement for women lost by a substantial margin; the beer and liquor companies warned that, given the vote, women would see to it that all the saloons would be closed.
Olympia went back to Weymouth. Her friend and fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony, was eager to have her give up the ministry and work for the suffrage movement full time; offering to pay her $1000.00 a year. Flattered, but hesitant, she was disturbed by the wrangling among the suffragist leaders as to the most effective way to achieve equality. Should they work through state legislatures or fight for a Constitutional amendment? In July 1868 the 14thAmendment was passed giving negro men the right to vote but, specifically excluding women. She decided to stay in Weymouth and continue to work for the cause when her pastoral duties permitted.
In 1869, she accepted a position with the Universalist Church in Bridgeport, CT. Olympia married John Henry Willis in 1873 but refused to change her name never answering to Mrs. Willis. She was the Reverend Olympia Brown to the end of her life. Her mother, Lephia, who was to live with Olympia for the rest of her life, was opposed to the marriage fearing that Olympia’s career would suffer. In 1874 when pregnant with her first child a number of her parishioners started to oppose her ministry.. Henry Parker Willis was born and by the time her second child, Gwendolen, arrived she had left the Bridgeport church and remained at home for the next couple of years to take care of her family.
By 1878, Olympia is getting restless and when she received the call from the Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine, Wisconsin, she accepted the position and was to serve that congregation for twenty years. Her husband John Willis, a truly unusual man for that era, was totally supportive of Olympia’s career as minister and suffragist leader. He bought the local paper and they move to Racine where she and her family would live for the better part of her life. In 1884, she organized the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association and by 1887 resigned as pastor to devote her life to getting the ballot for women while serving as part-time minister in smaller congregations. John Willis died in 1893 and Olympia remained in Racine where she managed the Racine Times-Call Paper for the next seven years. She attended many conventions, and took part in demonstrations and parades for the cause. Olympia wrote in her memoirs of meeting “ Abigail Scott Duniway…always with great pleasure. Abigail is still perseveringly advocating justice for women in her own state for her faith and hope and courage does not flag in spite of the fact that our cause has been voted down five different times in Oregon.”
Between 1900 and the end of WW I Olympia spent the winters with her son, Parker, in New York City or Gwendolen in Baltimore, always returning to Racine in the spring. She took part in suffragist protests in New York, Chicago and Washington DC. My grandmother was a delegate from Kansas at a Chicago demonstration and Olympia was a delegate from Wisconsin.. Olympia invited my grandmother to visit in Racine and in 1916 the photo ,which you can see, was taken there. My grandmother is the Woman in Chains.
Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1916 was vigorously opposed by the suffragists as he was outspokenly opposed to giving women the right to vote. Olympia joined the militant Women’s Rights Party led by Alice Paul and Lucy Barnes and in January of 1917 picketed with them at the White House. Wilson ordered the police to arrest those who were picketing, not those who heckled or attacked the women. The weather is cold and snowy, but Olympia, who had just had her 82nd birthday marched back and forth with them carrying a sign that read “We cannot any longer delay justice in the United States.” Fortunately, she was not jailed.
Finally in August of 1920 the 19th Amendment passed, and in November 1920 Olympia Brown votes – the only one of the original suffragists still alive. She gave her last sermon at the Universalist church in Racine in that year and declared:
“We can never make the world safe for democracy by fighting. Rather by showing the power of Justice done to each humble individual shall we be able to create a firm basis for the state. … Universalism shall at last win the world. Dear Friends, stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothingin all the world so important to you as to be loyal to this faith which placed before you the loftiest ideals, which has comforted you in sorrow, strengthened you for noble duty and made the world beautiful for you.”
Speaking of the changes that had taken place since her resignation as minister “the grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women in America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal.”
Olympia joined the League of Women Voters and became a charter member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She never gave up on her ideals and remained committed to her favorite motto, “Those who live in harmony with Justice are immortal.” She lived with her daughter in Baltimore until she
died in 1926 at the age of 92.
After Olympia died, Gwendolen wrote of her mother:
“She was not popular. She was indomitable and uncompromising, traits that do not lend themselves well to politics and leadership. She cared little for society, paid no deference to wealth, represented an unfashionable church, promoted a cause regarded as certain to be unsuccessful. She was troublesome because she asked people to do things. To work, contribute money, go to meetings, think and declarethemselves openly as favoring a principle or public measure.”
Today, in Racine, you can see the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church and the Olympia Brown Elementary School.
Sources : Olympia Brown – The Battle for Equality by Charlotte Cote – 1988
Acquaintances, Old and New Among Reformers by Olympia Brown – 1911
Olympia Brown UU Church and Olympia Brown Elementary School in Racine, WI