In 1863, Olympia Brown became the first woman in the United States to graduate from a theological school and become an ordained minister. Three years earlier, she had graduated from Antioch College in Ohio, where she began preaching. When Brown applied to a Unitarian theology school in Pennsylvania, she was told the trustees “thought it would be too great an experiment” to enroll a woman. The Universalist Divinity School at St. Lawrence University opened its doors to her, though, and after she graduated she was offered a full-time minister’s position in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts in 1864.
Olympia Brown became active in the women’s rights movement after meeting Susan B. Anthony in Massachusetts. In 1867, Brown was recruited by Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Henry Blackwell to be part of the great Kansas campaign to secure women’s voting rights in that state.
Brown took a leave of absence from her church and spent four months traveling through Kansas giving some 300 speeches, often times before hostile crowds. The Kansas campaign failed, but Brown never gave up her support for the suffrage cause.
When she married John Henry Willis in 1873, Olympia Brown, like Lucy Stone, kept her maiden name. She resigned her ministry in 1874, after the birth of her first child, but after a couple of years was anxious to get back to work. She accepted a position with a Universalist church in Racine, Wisconsin.
Olympia Brown stayed with that church for about nine years until she decided to work full time as a women’s suffrage organizer for both the Wisconsin Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. During the 1910s, Brown joined Alice Paul’s Woman’s Party and stood with the pickets at the White House.
When at long last her decades of hard work paid off, Olympia Brown cast her first presidential ballot in 1920. She was 85 years old.