First female Universalist minister, women’s rights activist
1835 - 1926
Born to a family of pioneers in Prairie Rhode, Michigan in 1835, Olympia Brown was one of the few women at the time to graduate from college, receiving her B.A. degree from Antioch in 1860. In 1863 she became the first female graduate from a regularly established theological school, St. Lawrence University. When ordained as a Universalist minister, she was the first woman to be given full ministerial standing recognized by a denomination. As a young minister in Massachusetts she actively joined the women’s rights movement and worked with Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and other renowned leaders. In 1867 she undertook a demanding campaign, on her own, in Kansas to advocate for the passage of a women’s suffrage amendment. Despite hostile resistance to the cause she built a spirited campaign, delivering an astounding 300 speeches. During a few years at a Universalist parish in Connecticut she married the feminist John Henry Willis and they later had two children. In 1874 she joined a Universalist church in Racine, Wisconsin and rejuvenated the society and community by also establishing it as a learning and cultural center, bringing famous speakers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony. Leaving full-time ministry at the age of 53 to be a women’s rights activist, she proved a vigorous and effective organizer for state and national suffrage initiatives. Leading the Wisconsin Suffrage Association for many years and serving as Vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, she promoted a wide range of reforms for women. Viewing education as the key to women’s advancement, she worked tirelessly for women’s admittance to colleges and professional schools. In the 1890s she felt the movement was declining, but that the grassroots and demonstration-focused tactics of the Woman’s Party, started in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Barnes, brought energy and fire back into the movement. As a charter of the party she joined in many of their historical demonstrations. One of the few original suffragists to live to see the triumph of the vote in 1919, she voted in her first presidential election at age 85. In her last years she worked with the newly formed Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.