Olympia Brown was born January 5, 1835 in Prairie Ronde, Michigan. One of four children, she was educated locally, and by the age of 15, she was already working as a schoolteacher. Then, after being denied admission into the University of Michigan solely because she was a woman, she attended Antioch College and graduated in 1860. Afterwards, she applied for admission into St. Lawrence Seminary, and after facing much resistance, was admitted. Three years later, Olympia graduated and became a minister of the Universalist Church, the first woman in the United States to have her ordination sanctioned by a full denomination.
At this time, she also became active in the women's rights movement and began working with Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, amongst others, and in the summer of 1867, she agreed to take on a rigorous campaign in Kansas to urge passage of the women's suffrage amendment. Often, she had to face hostile townspeople who wanted to discredit both her and the cause of women's suffrage, but she took it all in stride and kept her eyes firmly on her goal...and in spite of everything, she persevered and delivered more than 300 speeches; her work was a triumph.
In 1870, Olympia became the pastor of the Universalist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was here that she met and married, John Henry Willis in 1873. A son, Henry, was born in 1874, and it was at the end of 1874 that she decided to resign her ministry and move to Racine, Wisconsin where she was named pastor of the Universalist Church. In 1876, she gave birth to a daughter, Gwendolin. In 1882, Olympia she was named president of the Wisconsin Women's Association, a position she held for 30 years. Then, in 1887, she resigned her pastorate to devote all of her time to become an activist for women's suffrage. Olympia joined in many of the demonstrations of the Women's Party, braving the cold and the freezing rains...and dangerous confrontations with hecklers. Joseph Willis died in 1893.
During the First World War, she joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to form the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage and attempted to introduce the militant methods which were being used in Britain...including huge demonstrations and daily picketing in front of the White House. During one such demonstration, Olympia, now a frail old lady, burned several of Woodrow Wilson's speeches to protest his turning his back on the movement and traveling to France.
"I have fought for liberty for 70 years, and I protest the president's leaving the country with this old fight here undone." she said, and everyone broke out in applause.
And, over the next several years, the police arrested well over 500 women for loitering and 168 for obstructing traffic, but, in 1919, the suffrage amendment was finally passed, and on November 2, 1920, Olympia voted in her first presidential election at the age of 85. She was 91 when she and her daughter went on a trip to Europe, and upon her return, her health began to falter, and she died in Baltimore on October 23, 1926. She is buried in Racine, Wisconsin.
At the time Olympia Brown was a little girl, there had been no such thing as woman minister. All ministers were men. But, Olympia was not a woman to take 'no' for an answer and followed her dream to fruition. And of all the early pioneers of the women's movement, she was the only one who lived long enough to see the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Women at last had the right to vote.