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Wisconsin academy review (Dec. 1989)

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OLYMPIA BROWN: THE BATTLE FOR EQUALITY by Charlotte Coté. Racine, WI: Mother Courage Press, 1988. $16.95 cloth; $9.95 paper.

Olympia Brown by Charlotte Coté is a thoroughly interesting and inspiring biography of a woman whose life spanned two centuries and two careers. Born in 1835, Brown was thirteen-years-old at the time of the Seneca Falls convention. At twenty-eight, in 1863, she was the first woman to be ordained a minister in a denominational church in America. Brown’s life followed two clear callings, one in the ministry, the other for women’s suffrage.

Coté’s biography tells of Brown’s personal campaign to make the pulpit available to women, then touches on all the shifts in policy and leadership in the long struggle for women’s suffrage, focusing on the important role Brown played at all stages.

Olympia Brown was the eldest of four children born to Lephia and Asa Brown, who had left Vermont for better farming land and settled in the prairie village of Schoolcraft, Michigan in 1834. Lephia was an unusual woman. An intellectual, ardently devoted to education, she believed in full equality between the sexes and supported Olympia’s strivings for complete self-realization.

Charlotte Coté, drawing on the Brown papers in the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, Brown’s unpublished autobiography, and on her published recollections, Acquaintances, Old and New, Among Reformers (Milwaukee: Tate Printing Company, 1911), traces Olympia’s life: her childhood on the frontier, her education at Mt. Holyoke and Antioch, her training for the ministry at St. Lawrence Universalist Theological School, culminating in her ordination in 1863. During this period of her life Brown cut her own path through uncharted territory in preparing for the ministry. Brown was ordained in the Universalist Church in 1863. In 1864 she began her career as minister in Weymouth Falls, Massachusetts. In 1865 she took a leave from her church to campaign for four months in Kansas for women’s suffrage. A co-campaigner wrote: “She has great physical power of endurance, lately speaking two or three times each day in hottest weather, travelling from twenty to fifty miles each day with only an average of about four hours sleep, and her speeches from one to two hours in length, without apparently the least fatigue, and weighing only ninety-one pounds . . . Eloquent, hopeful and brave, . . . she is the best pleader for woman that we have yet seen before the public.”

In 1869 she moved, for a larger salary, to her second parish in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where P. T. Barnum was a friendly supporter. John H. Willis, whom she had met in Weymouth, followed her to Bridgeport, courted her, and they were married in 1874. They had two children. But because Brown faced persistent hostile opposition to her appointment, she sought a more congenial church. In 1878 the family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where Brown was minister at the Universalist Church until she resigned in 1887 to devote full energy to the suffrage movement.

Susan B. Anthony had asked Brown, shortly after she began her career, to join her in the suffrage cause, but after deep consideration, Brown refused. She felt her first calling was the ministry. At this point in the story one wishes Coté had devoted more discussion to Brown’s religious convictions, even some excerpts from her sermons. But Coté does not explore Brown’s   [p. 45]   position on theological issues except to distinguish a humanistic, loving, Universalist God from a hellfire-and-damnation god of other sects. One wonders what Brown said about equality of the sexes in her sermons from her pulpit.

We do get a much better sense of Brown as a campaigner for women s suffrage. Excerpts from her speeches and samples of some platform exchanges with other speakers (for example, Stephen Douglas) show her to be lively, quick witted, and forthright on the platform. Coté sketches the history of women s struggle for the vote, the achievements and setbacks. She briefly touches on the conflicts among the various personalities and associations, particularly in Wisconsin, but her focus keeps Brown in the forefront, always independent, stubborn, and single-minded.

Brown emerges as both formidable and engaging. Slight in stature (under five feet and less than one-hundred pounds), she had steadfast determination. When she realized that her voice was small and might not carry to the back of the hall, she took physical education and voice lessons. For the rest of her life, her oratorical style won admiring comment. Brown’s strong-headedness sustained her through many battles; it also prevented her from joining with groups with which she did not fully agree. Coté considers that Brown’s place in the history would have been far larger, that her name would have been as familiar as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone, if she had not been so self-directed.

The book provides some history of Wisconsin’s not always enlightened attitudes towards women’s suffrage. But one of the most dramatic episodes describes the suf-ragists’ winter-long picketing of the White House protesting President Wilson s opposition to women’s suffrage. How many of us are aware that American women were beaten, arrested, jailed, and went on a hunger strike in 1917, in attempts to win the vote?

Olympia Brown, in 1920, at the age of eighty-five, cast her first vote in a national election. She had participated all her adult life in the struggle to get the vote and, because she lived so long, succeeded in achieving her ambition. We are made painfully aware of the slow, frustrating history of achieving equal rights for women. Not much has been written about the life of this indomitable feminist; therefore Coté’s biography is most welcome.

Audrey Roberts teaches English and women’s studies at UW-Whitewater.

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