BROWN, OLYMPIA (5 January 1835, Prairie Ronde, MI-23 October 1926,
Baltimore, MD). Education: Attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, 1854-55; B.A., Antioch College, 1860; graduated from the theological school, St.
Lawrence University, 1863. Career: Itinerant Universalist preacher, VT, 1863-64; Universalist minister. Weymouth, MA, 1864-70; reformer on women's
issues, 1866-1926; cofounder, New England Woman Suffrage Association, 1884-1912; president, Federal Suffrage Association. 1903-20.
Olympia Brown, a leader in the woman suffrage movement in the nineteenth century, was one of the first women ordained to the ministry by an American denomination (1863). While at Antioch she led a movement among women students to bring a woman lecturer to the college. That lecturer was Antoinette Brown (Blackwell), one of the first prominent women in the American pulpit, who gave both inspiration and encouragement to Olympia Brown. Brown reported that during college she "had been gradually forming the determination to become a preacher" ("Autobiography," p.26). She wanted to preach against the doctrines of endless punishment that, to her horror, had been prevalent at Mount Holyoke. "I knew nothing then of the difficulties I was to experience later," she said in reference to pursuing her career (p.26). At seminary in St. Lawrence, her determination gradually wore down the initial opposition she felt, and she gradually began to find opportunities to preach after an initial engagement in which she simply went to a small New York town, announced her intention to preach, and gathered a choir. Her first congregation in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was progressive, supporting her in most of her work and leaving her with memories of it as "perhaps the most enjoyable part of my ministerial career" (p.33). During the late 1860s, while she was pastor there, she began to become seriously involved in lecturing and organizing for woman suffrage, taking an important role in the founding of the New England Woman Suffrage Association. Brown's second pastorate, at Bridgeport, Connecticut, was not the pleasant experience her first had been. A small faction there opposed women in the pulpit and stirred up division in the congregation, and Brown finally resigned. She then moved to Racine, Wisconsin, another parish, like Bridgeport. "in a run-down and unfortunate condition" (p.40). Her remarks on her difficulties in finding pastoral work are revealing: "The pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry with whom I, at first the only woman in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do" (p.41). Brown's church in Racine prospered, and in Wisconsin she assumed leadership of the woman suffrage movement. As her work continued, she saw that she "must give [herselfl more to the suffrage work" and eventually resigned her ministry to devote herself fully to that cause (p.62). She traveled extensively as a speaker and organizer, campaigning in Wisconsin and elsewhere and living to see the accomplishment of her goal in 1920. America's early feminists.
A. Acquaintances Old and New, among Reformers (Milwaukee, WI, 1911): editor, Democratic Ideals: A Memorial Sketch of Clara B. Colby (n.p., 1917); "Olympia Brown: An Autobiography," edited and completed by Gwendolen B. Willis, JUHS, 4(1963).
B. DAB 3, 151; NAW 1, 256-58; "Autobiography" (see above); Catherine F. Hitchings, "Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers," JUHS, 10 (1975).