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A-69; M-133

Brown, Olympia, 1835-1926. Papers of Olympia Brown, ca.1849-1963: A Finding Aid

Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University


Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

The papers were reprocessed and microfilmed under a grant from the North Shore Unitarian Veatch Program, Plandome, New York.

Descriptive Summary

Location: Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.
Call No.: A-69; M-133
Repository: Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Creator: Olympia Brown, 1835-1926
Title: Papers of Olympia Brown, ca.1849-1963
Date(s): 1849-1963
Quantity: 2.09 linear feet (5 boxes) plus 1 oversize folder, 1 supersize folder, 1 folio+ folder, 1 folio folder, 9 reels of microfilm)
Language of materials: Materials in English.
Abstract: Correspondence, writings, sermons, etc., of Olympia Brown, suffragist, author, and first woman ordained by full denominational authority.

Immediate Source of Acquisition:

Accession numbers: 58-50, 59-65, 175
The papers of Olympia Brown, the first woman to be ordained by full denominational authority, were given to the Schlesinger Library by her daughter, Gwendolen B. Willis, in 1958, 1959 and 1960.

Processing Information:

Reprocessed: May 1980
By: Bert Hartry

Conditions Governing Access:

Access. Originals are closed; use microfilm M-133.

Conditions Governing Use:

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Olympia Brown as well as copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.
Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


  • 1. Dates and/or other information have been written on some items by a number of people, including Brown and Gwendolen B. Willis. In organizing the material the processor accepted dates written by others. Dates and other information added by the processor are in square brackets.
  • 2. In most cases newspapers and magazines were not microfilmed in their entirety, but only the page(s) by or about Brown, and the title page where necessary to establish name and date of publication.
  • 3. The pages of "notebooks" containing Brown essays, sermons, etc. were microfilmed consecutively. The reader is cautioned, however, that the text is not always consecutive. Brown sometimes wrote on the right-hand page before the left-hand one, sewed in extra pages, or inserted loose pages; and some pages have been lost.
  • 4. Brown clipped, pinned, pasted or sewed clippings in the "notebooks." They were microfilmed with the pages with which they were found.
  • 5. Letters of one or more pages with either the salutation or signature missing, as well as smaller portions of letters, have been counted as fragments in the inventory.
  • 6. The photographs in #4 have been microfilmed with the Library's photograph collection; the film is available at the Schlesinger Library.
  • 7. Supersize items are larger than 20"x24." Supersize items listed in the inventory were all microfilmed together at the end of their respective series.
  • 8. Only title pages of the five issues of Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, 147, were microfilmed with the supersize items at the end of Series IV. A complete run of the weekly is available on microfilm (S 1025) at Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
  • 9. Some of the material in the supersize folders will be given to other libraries after being microfilmed. A Separation Record listing these items can be found after the Index to the Inventory.
  • Preferred Citation:

    Olympia Brown Papers, ca.1849-1963; item description, dates. A-69, folder #. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


    Olympia Brown's parents, Lephia Olympia (Brown) and Asa B. Brown, moved from Vermont to Michigan the year before she was born. Brown received her early education at local schools and spent the 1854-1855 academic year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. She graduated from Antioch College (1860) and the St. Lawrence University Theological School (Canton, New York) in 1863. That same year she was ordained by the St. Lawrence Association of Universalists in Malone, New York. During the summer of 1863 she preached in Vermont and on July 8, 1864, she was installed as pastor of the First Universalist Society in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Subsequently she served in pastorates at Bridgeport, Connecticut (1870-1876), and Racine, Wisconsin (1878-1887), and as a non-resident preacher in several other Wisconsin parishes. Brown's religious views were tolerant and liberal. She was opposed to the stern, orthodox teachings she first encountered at Mount Holyoke Seminary and believed "there was no such thing as everlasting punishment..." (An Autobiography, #2). An advocate of elocution lessons, she studied under T.F. Leonard and James J. Vance (see Index) and in time became an extremely effective extemporaneous speaker.
    It was in Weymouth that Brown met John Henry Willis, a trustee of the church. They were married in 1873 and had two children. Brown never used her husband's name and was known as Reverend Olympia Brown throughout her life.
    Brown's interest in woman's rights began early. In her autobiography (#2) she writes that she chose Antioch College (Yellow Springs, Ohio) over Oberlin College because the latter discriminated "...against the women." She was disappointed that no women lecturers were invited to speak at Antioch and persuaded her fellow women students to raise money and invite Antoinette Brown Blackwell. She found her reception and treatment at St. Lawrence University to be less than wholehearted but she was determined to achieve ordination and hoped by her example to persuade other women to enter the ministry.
    In 1866, at the invitation of Susan B. Anthony, Brown attended the convening meeting of the American Equal Rights Association. This was her first encounter with Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the beginning of a lifelong dedication to the woman's rights movement. In 1867 Brown campaigned in Kansas, speaking two and sometimes three times a day, for a woman's suffrage amendment to the state constitution. In 1868, under Brown's guidance, the New England Woman's Suffrage Association was formed, the first suffrage organization in the United States. After Brown's success as a stump speaker in the Kansas campaign, Susan B. Anthony tried to persuade her to resign her pastorate and give all her time to the woman's rights struggle, but Brown continued to put her ministerial duties first and give her spare time to suffrage work. She maintained good relations with both the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, believing that each served a useful function.
    In 1882 she helped organize the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, became its president in 1884, and was reelected annually until 1912. The passage by the Wisconsin legislature, and its approval by the people of the state, of the School Suffrage Law (1885) finally led Brown to resign from her parish. This law gave women the right to vote in any election pertaining to school matters. Believing that every election fell into this category, Brown handed in her resignation in 1887 and that November went to the polls to vote. Her vote was rejected and the case went to court. Brown argued on her own behalf and won, but in an appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court the decision was reversed.
    The NWSA and the AWSA merged to form the NAWSA in 1890. Brown was disappointed at the new organization's emphasis on securing suffrage by amending each state constitution. In 1892 she called a meeting in Chicago and formed the Federal Suffrage Association. She remained active with this organization, testifying before Congressional committees and speaking at public gatherings, until it was disbanded in 1920. She also joined the Congressional Union (later the National Woman's Party) and distributed suffrage material in front of President Wilson's White House. She later became a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Brown published Acquaintances Old and New Among Reformers in 1911, and in 1917 Democratic Ideals, A Life of Clara Bewick Colby. She died in Baltimore, Maryland on October 23, 1926.
    More complete biographical material is available in this collection, including An Autobiography, edited and completed by Gwendolen B. Willis, unpublished, 1960. See also the article in Notable American Women (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), which includes a list of additional sources.


    The collection is arranged in four series:


    This collection contains over 120 manuscript sermons and notes for sermons, ms. school and college essays, other writings (ms., ts. and printed), correspondence (mostly letters to Brown), speeches, church and convention programs, clippings, five issues of Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, handbills, photographs and memorabilia. The papers provide information about Brown's family, her formal education and her outlook on religion, women in the ministry and woman's rights. There is considerable information about the woman's suffrage movement, particularly the Kansas campaign of 1867, the Federal Suffrage Association, and the trials of Brown and Susan B. Anthony. There is little information about Brown's ministerial career after she resigned from her Racine parish, and there are only nine letters written by her.
    This collection does not represent the total surviving Brown papers. Other collections are listed in Women's History Sources (New York and London, 1979).
    For an explanation of the arrangement within each series, see the inventory.


    An index of writers and recipients of letters. Information about individuals is not indexed; nor are subjects. An * indicates both a writer and a recipient, a + a recipient only. The numbers refer to the folders.

    Container List

    Additional Index Terms

    Connecticut -- Politics and government.
    Religion--History--19th century
    Trials (Political crimes and offenses)
    Women clergy
    Women--Education--History--19th century
    Women--Suffrage -- Kansas
    Women--Suffrage--Songs and music
    Women's rights
    American Woman Suffrage Association
    Anthony, Susan B. (Susan Brownell), 1820-1906
    Antioch College
    Blackwell, Alice Stone, 1857-1950
    Blackwell, Antoinette Louisa Brown, 1825-1921
    Blackwell, Henry Browne, 1825-1909
    Burns, Lucy, 1879-1966
    Cobb, Eunice Hale Wait
    Colby, Clara Dorothy Bewick, 1846-1916
    Couzins, Phoebe Wilson, 1839-1913
    Dickinson, Anna E. (Anna Elizabeth), 1842-1932
    Federal Suffrage Association
    Fuller, Margaret, 1810-1850
    Gage, Matilda Joslyn, 1826-1898
    Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879
    Garrison, William Lloyd, 1838-1909
    Hanaford, Phebe A. (Phebe Ann), 1829-1921
    Harper, Ida Husted, 1851-1931
    Hooker, Isabella Beecher, 1822-1907
    Hooker, John, 1816-1901
    Howe, Julia Ward, 1819-1910
    Johnson, Adelaide, 1859-1955
    Lenroot, Irvine Luther, 1869-1949
    Lewis, Dora
    Livermore, Mary Ashton Rice, 1820-1905
    Mann, Horace, 1796-1859
    Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
    National American Woman Suffrage Association
    National Woman Suffrage Association (U.S.)
    New England Woman Suffrage Association
    Sabin, Ellen Clara, 1850-1949
    Sewall, May Wright, 1844-1920
    Shaw, Anna Howard, 1847-1919
    St. Lawrence University. Theological School
    Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, 1815-1902
    Stearns, Lutie Eugenia, 1866-1943
    Stone, Lucy, 1818-1893
    Tilton, Theodore, 1835-1907
    Upton, Harriet Taylor
    Willis, Gwendolen Brown, 1876-1969
    Willis, John Henry, -1893
    Woodhull, Victoria C. (Victoria Claflin), 1838-1927