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COLLECTION Identifier: A-69: M-133

Papers of Olympia Brown, ca.1849-1963


Correspondence, writings, sermons, etc., of Olympia Brown, suffragist, author, and first woman ordained by full denominational authority.


  • Creation: 1849-1963

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Access. Originals are closed; use microfilm M-133 or digital images.

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.


2.5 linear feet ((6 file boxes) plus 1 folio folder, 1 folio+ folder, 1 oversize folder, 1 supersize folder)

This collection contains over 120 handwritten sermons and notes for sermons, handwritten school and college essays, other writings 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.

Series I, Personal and Biographical, 1857-1963 (#1-13), is grouped in three sections: biographical, education and professional.

Series II, Writings, 1849-1920, n.d. (#14-126), is arranged chronologically, with dated items followed by the undated items. The latter are divided into three sections: college writings, writings on woman's rights, and sermons. All items are handwritten unless otherwise noted.

Series III, Correspondence, 1855-1920 (#127-142), is grouped in three sections: letters to Brown; letters by Brown; and other to other. Each section is arranged chronologically. See Index of correspondents.

Series IV, Suffrage and Woman's Rights, 1855?-1921 (#143-158, 161+), is arranged by organization, event, or type of record and then chronologically. Woman's rights material is located throughout the collection; see also Series I, #6, 9, 10, 12 and 13; Series II, especially #25, 28-29, 32-36, 46-50; and Series III.

This collection does not represent the total surviving Brown papers. Other collections are listed in Women's History Sources (New York and London, 1979).


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 was president from 1903 to 1920, and 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:

  1. SERIES I. Personal and Biographical, 1857-1963. #1-13.
  2. SERIES II. Writings by Brown, 1849-1920, n.d. #14-126.
  3. SERIES III. Correspondence, 1855-1920. #127-142.
  4. SERIES IV. Suffrage and Woman's Rights, 1855?-1921. #143-158, 161+.

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

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.


  1. 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. 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. 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. 4. Brown clipped, pinned, pasted or sewed clippings in the "notebooks." They were microfilmed with the pages with which they were found.
  5. 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. 6. The photographs in #4 have been microfilmed with the Library's photograph collection; the film is available at the Schlesinger Library.
  7. 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. 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. 9. Some of the supersize material will be given to other libraries after being microfilmed. A Separation Record listing these items can be found after the Index to the Inventory.


Donor: Gwendolen B. Willis

Accession numbers: 58-50, 59-65, 175

Processed by: Bert Hartry

The following items have been sent to the American Antiquarian Society, August 1980:

  1. The Evening News. Danbury, Connecticut. December 2, 1871.
  2. The Geneva Courier. New York. June 7, 1876.
  3. The Gospel Banner. Augusta, Maine. March 30, 1872.
  4. Leavenworth Daily Commercial. Kansas. November 5, 1867.
  5. The New York Era. February 6, 1876.
  6. Rochester Evening Express. New York. April 4, 1873.
  7. The Xenia Torchlight. Ohio. January 2, 1867.

The following items have been sent to the Cincinnati Historical Society, August 1980:

  1. Star in the West. Cincinnati, Ohio. July 5, 1877; August 23 and 30, 1877; September 6, 13, and 20, 1877; October 11 and 18, 1877; January 24, 1878; March 14, 1878; March 27, 1879.

The following items have been sent to the Wisconsin Historical Society, August 1980:

  1. The Advocate. Racine, Wisconsin. April 5, 1883.
  2. The Morning Liberal Democrat. La Crosse, Wisconsin. June 9, 1878.
  3. The Wisconsin Citizen. Racine. March 1889.
  4. The Wisconsin Prohibitionist. Madison. February 21, 1889.

The following items have been sent to the Boston Public Library, August 1980:

  1. The Gospel Banner. Augusta, Maine. September 28, 1872.
  2. The Boston Investigator. June 10, 1868.


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.

  1. *Anthony, Susan Brownell, 127-129, 132-137, 140, 142.
  2. Baker, George S., 131.
  3. Ballou, Eli, 127, 142.
  4. Bate, Amelia W., 134.
  5. Bates, R.B., 135.
  6. Bennett, Edgar M., 136.
  7. Bennett, Sarah Clay, 138.
  8. Blackwell, Alice Stone, 136.
  9. Blackwell, Antoinette Brown, 127, 128, 134, 142.
  10. *Blackwell, Henry B., 128, 130, 141. Blanchard, Inez A., 134.
  11. Boyd, Mary Sumner, 138.
  12. Bradberry, J.G., 128.
  13. Brown, Lephia Olympia, 127.
  14. *Brown, Olympia, 127-141.
  15. Bruce, E.M., 133.
  16. Burleigh, Celia. 131.
  17. Burns, Lucy, 138.
  18. Canfield, H.L., 130.
  19. Catt, Carrie Chapman, 139.
  20. Cobb, E.H., 127, 130, 131, 142.
  21. *Colby, Clara Bewick, 136, 142.
  22. Comstock, Hannah M., 142.
  23. Cothren, Marion B., 139.
  24. Couzins, Phoebe W., 135.
  25. Craig, Austin, 127.
  26. Dickinson, Anna E., 127, 128.
  27. Dodge, J. Smith, Jr., 130.
  28. Eates, Adelia, 129.
  29. Effinger, Lucretia, 131
  30. +Emerson, Rev. George H., 142.
  31. Fairbanks, Asa, 131
  32. +Fels, Mrs. Joseph, 141.
  33. *Fish, A.C., 134, 135, 141.
  34. Fisher, Ebenezer, 127.
  35. Fisher, R. G., 135.
  36. Fogg, M., 128.
  37. Foster, A.K., 129.
  38. Foster, Charles G., 128.
  39. Foster, Ellen Burroughs, 138.
  40. +Fowler, Maria A., 142
  41. Foye, John O., 127.
  42. +Fuller, Mrs., 141.
  43. Gage, Matilda E. Joslyn, 132, 133.
  44. *Garrison, William Lloyd, 129, 141.
  45. Garrison, William Lloyd II, 137.
  46. Gregory, John G., 135.
  47. *Hanaford, Phebe A., 128, 131, 132, 134, 142.
  48. Harper, Ida Husted, 138, 139.
  49. Haskell, William Garrison, 128, 129.
  50. Hazard, Mrs. W. T., 142.
  51. Hickox, Mary C., 137.
  52. Hirst, Cosmelia, 137.
  53. *Hooker, Isabella Beecher, 131, 132, 134, 136, 137, 142.
  54. Hooker, John, 130.
  55. Howe, Julia Ward, 131.
  56. Johnson, Adelaide, 137.
  57. Jones, J. E. (Elizabeth), 127.
  58. Larkin, Samuel, 130, 131.
  59. Lee, John S., 132.
  60. Lenroot, I.L., Congressman, 138.
  61. Leonard, T.F., 128-130.
  62. Lewis, Dora, 139.
  63. Livermore, Mary A., 128-130, 142.
  64. Moody, Joel, 128.
  65. Moore, Charles C., 138.
  66. Morgan, John, 127.
  67. Peck, C.H., 131.
  68. Perry, Henry, 132.
  69. Richards, Elias, 128, 130.
  70. Richards, Sara H., 134.
  71. Robinson, C., 128, 129.
  72. Rowlands & Rowland, Attorneys, 135.
  73. Sabin, Ellen C., 138.
  74. Severance, George, 129.
  75. Sewall, May Wright (Wright-Thompson, May), 133.
  76. Shaw, Anna Howard, 138.
  77. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, 129, 134-136, 140.
  78. +Start, Brother, 141.
  79. +Stearns, Cora M., 141.
  80. Stearns, Lutie E., 137.
  81. Stearns, O., 127.
  82. *Stone, Lucy, 128, 129, 131, 141.
  83. +Stone, Sarah, 141.
  84. +Sturgeon, [Mr.], 142.
  85. Tanner, Clara Follette, 140.
  86. +Upton, Harriet Taylor, 142.
  87. Vance, James J., 133.
  88. Wales, Zippie Brooks, 132.
  89. Welsh, Henry, 132.
  90. Weston, J.B., 132.
  91. Wheeler, D.H., 129.
  92. +Wiley, Dr. Harvey, 141.
  93. Wilkes, Eliza Tupper, 131.
  94. +Willis, John Henry, 142.
  95. *Wood, S.N., 128, 142.
  96. Wright-Thompson, May, 133.

General note

Container List
  1. Box 1: Folders 1-3, 4a-7, 9-24
  2. Box 2: Folders 25-52
  3. Box 3: Folders 53-85
  4. Box 4: Folders 86-108
  5. Box 5: Folders 109-133
  6. Box 6: Folders 134-158

Processing Information

Reprocessed: May 1980

By: Bert Hartry

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

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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