Pioneer Minister and Suffragist
In 1999, the pioneering life of Olympia Brown, a native of Prairie Ronde Township, was added to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, making her only the fifth woman from Kalamazoo County to achieve the honor.
Born in a frontier log cabin in Prairie Ronde Township in 1835, Olympia Brown drew her first breath a mere seven years after the first white settlers came to Kalamazoo County. The biggest influence on her formative years was her mother Lephia, who instilled in Olympia the idea of the equality of the sexes, and a strong foundation of religious faith.
In 1860, at the age of 25, Brown graduated from Antioch College, no small accomplishment given the small number of women admitted to colleges and universities at the time. Despite Antioch’s progressive reputation, Brown confronted many instances of discrimination, including an instructor who did not require women to memorize their speeches. In protest, Brown delivered her speeches without the assistance of notes, as was required of the male students.
Three years later, Brown graduated from St. Lawrence University Theological School, and soon afterward became the first woman in the United States to become ordained with full denominational backing from the Universalist Church of America. Despite her achievement, Brown was reminded routinely that opposition to her gender was rampant. A paucity of opportunities to oversee major congregations that were typically reserved for men, Brown was often left with “rundown and unfortunate conditions” to turn around. Brown spent twenty four years in the pulpit, ministering to churches in Weymouth, Massachusetts; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Racine, Wisconsin; and Marshfield, Vermont.
In the 1880s, Brown left the pulpit to focus her attention and passion on the women’s suffrage movement. She had been interested in suffragist concerns since her time at Antioch, stating, “Society today needs the vote of the church women in settling the great moral problems of our time, and the church if it would maintain the dignity and self-respect that belong to such an organization, if it would do its grandest work, must secure the ballot for its women.” She worked along side of her feminist contemporaries in the fight for equal rights, which included Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
In the late 1800s, Brown joined Paul’s Women’s Party, served as president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association from 1884 to 1912, regularly traveled on the suffragist lecture circuit, and published the Racine Times from 1893 to 1900 after the death of her publisher husband, John H. Willis. In 1918, Brown publicly burned a copy of President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches on democracy, suggesting that there could be no talk of democracy without a woman’s right to vote.
In November of 1920, she was able to see the fruits of the movement’s labor realized by casting a ballot in the election for president, an accomplishment that few of the original feminist trailblazers were able to do. For the next six years, her activism was focused on the struggle to get an equal rights amendment added to the U.S. Constitution. Brown died 23 October 1926 in Baltimore and is buried in Racine, Wisconsin.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, September 2023