Mothering all People: The Intrepid Olympia Brown, p. 2
Olympia’s extended family joined the westward migration and settled in Schoolcraft, Michigan, an arduous three-week trip. They built a primitive log house there, which became a place for the hired help to visit and play cards.
Her father built a schoolhouse and told all the neighbors that if they would send their kids and pay a small amount, he would hire a teacher. As you can imagine, the neighbors send their children but didn’t often pay their share, so Mr. Brown shouldered the burden. Olympia grew and taught herself as her mother encouraged her– insisted, actually – that she keep studying. It’s sometimes hard to imagine what her mother thought an education would bring in a world that required mostly practical skills to survive. But there were incentives to study, because if you were studying you didn’t have to do the housework!
Olympia and her sister were eventually sent to a nearby school that had a “Literary Society” in which only the boys could recite and participate in debates; the girls could only read. The girls rose up and said they wanted to participate in the debates, too! The teachers shut it down, and Brown writes, “We were thus suppressed, and my first effort for the equality of the sexes was unsuccessful.” (Brown: 12).
Even though they were in a small town in Michigan, the family was well-versed on the affairs the country. The family – and the school – read the New York Weekly Tribune and discussed it faithfully. It was a radical press and the entire family was anti-slavery. Olympia’s Aunt Pamela and her husband, Dr. Nathan Thomas used their home as one of the stations on the Underground Railroad. There were often African Americans there when the Olympia visited, and as many as 1500 people were cared for there while making their escape to Canada. This attitude of liberation was part of Olympia’s upbringing.
Olympia’s mother wanted more for her daughters than what Schoolcraft could offer and worked hard to send them to Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. Off they went, on their own, on their first separation from the family; Olympia was 19. While the setting was in a beautiful natural environment, the place was completely inappropriate for these sisters – self-taught leaders with a sense of ambition! There were huge lists of rules, menial labor to do, but at least the college cared to educate them. She wrote in her autobiography: “Women need education and needed it still more at that time in order to become an essential part of that great body of men and women who are, by reason of their trained minds, capable of great undertakings in politics, and in society at large.” (Brown: 17). It was here that Brown learned and practiced the skills of debate.
Brown grew up with no church nearby, so Olympia and her sister were ripe for religious conversion at Holyoke and pressured to answer questions about their beliefs – something they had not spent much time on, growing up. She wrote, “We managed to evade the religious persecution, privately sent to Boston for books, and set to work to find out for ourselves whether we were to believe in such uncongenial doctrines, and if not, how to give reasons for our non-belief. Through my private studies I became thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of Divine Love, the Fatherhood of God, and the Brotherhood of Man, which have ever since been the joy of my life.” (Brown: 18). Does this sound like any of you? She knew the value of forming her own opinion based on her upbringing.
After Holyoke she was encouraged to go to a “real” college. In 1856, there were only two that admitted women: Oberlin and Antioch. She was drawn to Oberlin because Antoinette Brown and suffragist Lucy Stone went there. But she was turned off by Oberlin. You see, the male students were all encouraged to read their final essays to a public audience, but women were “not allowed to read their graduating essays in public.” (Brown: 19). This wasn’t fair!! She selected Antioch, which encouraged equality among men and women and was led by Unitarian Horace Mann. The whole family left Michigan and moved to Yellow Springs to be near her!
She had the opportunity to hear strong voices speak on Antioch’s campus, such as Horace Greeley (Universalist editor of the New York Daily Tribune) and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others – but all men. Olympia wanted a woman speaker and worked hard to get Antoinette Brown to speak there.
She wrote, “At Antioch College I found the spirit of liberality and religious tolerance to which I had been accustomed in childhood. …” After she graduated, she started contemplating the ministry. She wrote, “During the years of my college work I had been gradually forming the determination to become a preacher. Ever since my experience at Mt. Holyoke I had been anxious to tell the truth about the doctrine of endless punishment. I vainly supposed that if people could only be told there was no such thing as everlasting punishment as it was then literally preached they would be rejoiced.” (Brown: 26).
At the age of 26, she applied to Meadville Theological School and was told they would LIKE to have her, but thought it was too great a risk; she would never find a pulpit. Oberlin would also take her, but like Antoinette Brown, she was told she could not take part in any public speaking. Finally, she applied to St. Lawrence University, the Universalist Divinity School in Canton, NY, where she was the first woman admitted there, and could be fully included in all the activities, including public speaking. The leader told her that he didn’t think women should be ministers, but it was up to her to try. The teachers treated her well, but the other male students were critical and teased her or criticized her voice. She wrote, “I tried not to notice these disagreeable things, realizing that it was the first time in this country that a woman had undertaken this task, and wishing that others who would come after me might not experience the same treatment.” (Brown: 27).
All she really wanted to do was to speak. She needed the platform and the practice. She had her message: the universality of God’s love. To get the practice she needed, Brown traveled to New York and Vermont to preach – all the while facing difficulties in getting transportation, getting people to let her speak, or receiving any general respect. Finally, her preaching was getting good reviews. With these positive reviews in hand, she mustered up the courage to go to the Northern Universalist Association to ask to be ordained. After delivering a sermon, she went before the ordaining council and spoke for herself. She wrote, “This was the first time that the Universalists, or indeed any denomination, had formally ordained any woman as a preacher. They took that stand, a remarkable one for the day, which shows the courage of those men.” (Brown: 30). She was ordained in 1863. Of course, there were arguments, including that if women would flock into the ministry it would bring down the price of preaching! Brown worked hard to persuade women to become ministers, but the pressure on women to stay in their gender-role box persisted. Today, we see how gender-role pressures weigh on the trans community, as well. Fear of lost wages to men shouldn’t have been a worry. In more than 60 years after her ordination, less than 60 women became ministers in Universalist churches.
After ordination, she was called to serve a church in Vermont. She loved it there and could travel to Boston easily to hear Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison and others, and it was there that she met her husband, Mr. John Henry Willis. In a very rare move, she sought legal protection to retain her last name rather than take her husband’s. Working with the parishioners, the congregation rebuilt a rundown building and helped nurture a viable church. Once rebuilt, she turned the church over to a male minister.
Wherever she went, she strengthened the congregations she served. She helped rebuild another church in Bridgeport, CT. When she left Bridgeport, she revived another church in Racine Wisconsin. She and Henry now had two children. This was the plight of women in ministry in this era. They had to take run-down churches because the men wouldn’t take them, and this was true for Olympia Brown. There is an incredible book called the Iowa Sisterhood that details the stories of Unitarian women in the 1870s who were willing to settle in rural parts of the country – places where men would not serve. But I digress.
While Brown was serving in Connecticut, she met Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Mary Livermore. Finally, she felt a calling far greater than serving an individual congregation. Eventually, Brown left the ministry to work with Lucy Stone for suffrage. She got involved in “The American Equal Rights Association – which worked for equality for women and African Americans.