One of her most exhausting campaigns for suffrage was a four-month trip to Kansas; the fight for suffrage was being waged both in the states and at the federal level; Kansas was a state campaign. She traveled on poor roads by horse and buggy across long distances, holding two or three meetings a day and delivering 200-300 speeches. When the state finally voted, they only achieved 1/3 of the votes needed for passage. She was disappointed but took great pride in the praise from Susan B. Anthony for her “herculean work.” That’s the way it goes, isn’t it? We don’t win them all, but we keep chipping away at injustice and gladly accept whatever gains we make. She was intrepid.

As so often occurs in politics, fissures began to appear in these movements. The organization Olympia was part of, the Equal Rights Association, was intended to work for the rights of women and African Americans alike. But some wanted to prioritize getting women the vote first – while others felt African Americans should be first. She wrote this in her autobiography:

“[At] a great meeting in New York City in May, 1868, following our return from Kansas, Frederick Douglass won great applause by making a comparison between the needs of the Negro and those of women, saying, ‘There are no Ku Klux Clans seeking the lives of women. The voters are their father, their husbands and brothers,’ and he drew the conclusion that all should work for the Negro to the exclusion of woman’s suffrage. It seemed [to her] that there ought to be a distinctively woman’s suffrage society.” (Willis 59). Brown seemed to be shifting her focus to getting the vote for women. It saddens me.

Finally, Brown is back in Wisconsin where women won the right to vote in that state – on school matters, only! (Brown: 62). They fought the narrowness of the bill on many fronts, including how impractical it would be. But it was upheld in the Supreme Court – women could only vote on school matters!

Brown’s daughter Gwendolyn Willis wrote the conclusion to her mother’s autobiography. Olympia was quite old by that time, and Gwendolyn is largely responsible for putting the book’s chapters together. Willis wrote of her mother: “When we write the history of our feminists we must begin not with them but with their mothers.” (Brown: 69). Brown moved with her daughter to Baltimore and joined the Maryland Suffrage Association and took part in Congressional hearings. Suffrage was regaining energy after a slow period and Alice Paul founded the “The Woman’s Party”– adopting a forceful drive that focused on passing a Constitutional amendment. Her daughter records Olympia saying, “I belonged to this party before it was born.” (Brown: 74).

Finally, the amendment passed in 1919 and was ratified in 1920; Brown was 85. Among the early pioneers of women’s suffrage, Olympia Brown was the only one alive to vote following its passage. And in her speech at the celebration of its passage she said, “The question now arises—what will the women do with the vote? The women of the nation with ballots in their hands can and must do something effective for their country.” (Brown: 75).

Olympia Brown simply believed women had something to say and she wanted us to have the right to say it. She and other women of her time had to fight for their voices to be heard and their votes to be counted. And now, 100 years after women’s suffrage, still less than 24% of Members of Congress are women. Women’s movements are built on the lives of women like Olympia Brown – first at a seminary, first woman ordained by a denomination, builder of churches, tireless worker for equal rights. She was a woman who endured setbacks and hardships. And now we have a new wave with the influx of women to Congress in 2018, #MeToo, “She the People”, and Supermajority – all movements to amplify women’s voices. Now if we can just keep from dividing our energy and recognize that there is liberation in the multiplicity and diversity of voices, gender identities, ethnicities and races. It will take us all to amplify the voice of marginalized groups and create a more equal society.  

How do we nurture more Olympia Browns into being? She was raised in an environment in which both her mother and father wanted more for her. She was raised in an environment where freedom and equality were things people fought for. She was raised in an environment where reading and debating were valuable parts of learning. She was raised in an environment where the people of the community shared with one another.

Olympia Brown was nurtured and became a persistent fighter who really only wanted two things: Universal love and a voice for women. If we Unitarian Universalists can encourage liberation like that, we will be doing Mother’s Day proud.