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“I Was Determined to Seek Ordination”
Olympia Brown, Women’s Rights Pioneer

By Neal S. Burdick ’72

Laurentians familiar with St. Lawrence history know the fundamentals of Olympia Brown’s life: first woman student in the Theological School  – first woman graduate of any theological school  – first woman to be accorded full ordination by a denomination in America – leading suffragist.

It all sounds neat and clean.  But, as always with pioneers, it wasn’t. Olympia Brown spent her life fighting prejudice. As tempting as it is to say that her presence at St. Lawrence indicates the progressive nature of the institution, which has famously been coeducational since its start, in fact many of its leaders were uncertain about admitting her, and quite certain in their opposition to her being ordained. 

People do not become pioneers if they give up easily, though.  Her life is a model of stubborn resolve.

“Feisty, determined, outspoken and tireless” is how historian T. G. Clarke of Weymouth, Mass., where she held her first formal pastorate, describes her in a copyrighted monogram.

First Woman Seminarian
After being rebuffed by two seminaries, Brown was accepted by the St. Lawrence Theological School. However, in her autobiography she explains, “Mr. Ebenezer Fisher, the President, replied that I would be admitted but he did not think women were called to the ministry.” She continues, “President Fisher, in spite of his discomfiture at my entering the school, was just to me as a student, and never discriminated against me until I began to take steps toward ordination.”

When she announced her intention to attend the Northern Universalist Association annual meeting in Malone and apply for ordination, Fisher was steadfast in his public opposition.  Partly because she had been well received at area churches, though, the vote was in her favor and “Mr. Fisher had so far overcome his feelings that he took part in the [ordination] exercises.”

Prejudice and Suffragism
Moving into the professional sphere, Brown realized that prejudice was to be her constant companion. She commented on those who argued vehemently for “Negro emancipation” but with equal vigor stood in the way of her mounting a pulpit.

Her longtime interest in women’s suffrage deepened; Elizabeth Cady Stanton said “She is the most promising young woman now speaking in this cause.” She founded the New England Woman’s Suffrage Association and later, working in close collaboration with Susan B. Anthony, Stanton and Julia Ward Howe, became president of the Wisconsin State Woman’s Suffrage Association, a post she held for 30 years, during which she also held pastorates at several Universalist churches in the Midwest.

After her husband died suddenly in 1893, she also ran his printing business and newspaper, in the face of community opposition and unscrupulous former partners. She spoke before state legislatures, conventions and public gatherings, and was the only one of the acknowledged leaders of the movement to live to see the ratification of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, giving women the right to vote, in 1920. She died in Baltimore in 1926, at age 91.

Her Legacy
A church and an elementary school in Racine bear Olympia Brown’s name. On campus, in 1963, upon the centennial of her ordination, a plaque honoring her was unveiled in Atwood Hall, at the time the home of the Theological School.  The plaque reads in part, “The flame of her spirit still burns today.”

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