Born in 1835, Olympia Brown was lucky in her parents, who valued education and were her cheerleaders as she became one of few women college graduates (Antioch College) and not long afterwards the first woman ordained in any mainline church in the United States.
This was no mean achievement, as the barriers to women in the ministry were formidable at the time, and she had been turned down by many seminaries before she got a grudging acceptance at the Theological School of St. Lawrence University. Obstacles faced Brown once again as she fought to be ordained, but prevail she did and went on to serve at a number of churches but served longest and most successfully at a Racine, WI, church that now bears her name.
Alongside her work in the ministry, Brown was also a staunch advocate of women’s suffrage and a close colleague of the Unitarian leader of the early movement, Susan B. Anthony, taking time out from her ministry duties to go on speaking tours on behalf of the cause. With the support of her husband, Brown carved out a leadership role in the movement, founding and leading state and regional organizations and serving for 17 years as president of the Federal Suffrage Association.
Her service and long life (she died in 1926) brought her into partnership in 1913 with a new generation of suffrage activists—Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, founders of the National Women’s Party, which lobbied for passage and state ratification of what would become the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1920, Brown became one of the few survivors of the earlier movement to cast a vote in a national election.
On the 1963 centennial of Brown’s ordination, the Theological School at St. Lawrence University installed a plaque at the Racine church reading:
Preacher of Universalism
Pioneer and Champion of Women's Citizenship Rights
Forerunner of the New Era
The flame of her spirit still burns today.
In 1989, the church was renamed in honor of its illustrious pastor, the Rev. Olympia Brown.