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Olympia Brown Gets the Vote
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A farm wagon bumped along through the Kansas prairie, under a blazing August sun. Next to the wagon’s driver sat a young woman in a long black dress. She had been up since four a.m. and, after a hasty breakfast, had taken her leave. Now, as her eyes took in the great sweep of prairie that spread out around her, Olympia Brown had plenty of time to gather her thoughts. It was a long way to the next town where folks would come to hear her speak.
She had met the driver only the day before. The track they were traveling wasn’t really a road at all. They made their way through the sea of tall grass, with no hint of a town or a village ahead. But after a month of similar days, Olympia had faith that she would indeed reach a town where people would gather to hear her speak. She had faith that someone would provide her a meal and a place to sleep (though it might be no more than a rough mattress on the floor of a sod house). And she had faith that someone would transport her to the town where she was scheduled to speak the following day.
Olympia Brown was not a complainer. She had a job to do, and she did it with strength and conviction and enormous good will. But her travels in Kansas were not at all what she had expected. How had she come to be in this place?
Olympia Brown was the minister of a Universalist church in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts. She had struggled long and hard to become an ordained minister, and she loved her job. But in 1867, two leaders in the fight for women’s rights, Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell, had persuaded Olympia to go to Kansas to campaign for an amendment to the Kansas constitution—an amendment that would give women the right to vote. Another amendment on the ballot would give black men the right to vote. If both amendments passed, Kansas would be the first state to grant universal suffrage—the right of all adult citizens—black, white, women and men—to vote.
Olympia Brown already supported universal suffrage, passionately. She was a powerful speaker on that subject. Her congregation generously gave her a leave of absence for the Kansas campaign. Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell had assured the young Universalist minister that speaking engagements, lodgings, a traveling companion, a conveyance and a driver, had all been arranged.
When Olympia got to Kansas, she found she did have speaking engagements, but no companion, no lodgings, no conveyance and no driver. Members of the Republican party who had promised to provide these had not held up their end of the agreement. They said they had run out of money, but it was more likely a political decision. The party had decided not to support the woman suffrage amendment after all.
Fortunately for Olympia, the people of Kansas were generous and helpful. For four months, she followed a schedule that most people would have considered impossible. Against all odds, Olympia attracted large, receptive audiences in towns throughout the state. Still, when it came time to vote, the men of Kansas defeated both amendments. Fewer than one third of them supported woman suffrage. Olympia felt the defeat keenly, but Susan B. Anthony, the leading woman suffrage leader, wrote her an uplifting letter. “Never was defeat so glorious a victory,” she wrote. “We shall win. The day breaks.”
Olympia’s work in Kansas won her many friends among those who were committed to the struggle for women’s rights. From then on, she divided her energies between her ministry and her work as a suffragist. In 1868, the fifteenth amendment to the United States Constitution passed, and in 1870, it was ratified. This amendment gave the vote to black men, but women were still excluded. This was a terrible disappointment to Olympia Brown.
Women’s rights advocates all over the country renewed their efforts to convince voters, all of whom were men, that every citizen should have the right to vote. Many people believed that women would surely win the vote soon. It was the only fair thing to do.
Olympia Brown continued her work as a minister, now in the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. She married John Henry Willis in 1873, but she did not change her name. She had a son the following year, but she did not give up her work. In 1876, she spoke to a Congressional committee in Washington, D.C. She made an eloquent plea for the right of women as citizens to enjoy the same political rights as any other citizen. That same year, on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Susan B. Anthony read a Declaration for the Rights of Women to a cheering crowd in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. But still women had no right to vote.
By 1878, Olympia Brown had a daughter as well as a son. She became minister of a church in Racine, Wisconsin. In 1884, she became president of the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1887, she resigned her ministry to work full time for women’s rights. It was now twenty years since she had campaigned in Kansas, and still she had no right to vote.
At that time, individual states could grant women the ballot even if Congress refused to do so. By 1896, some women were voting—but only in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. It was now thirty years since Olympia Brown had campaigned in Kansas, and still she had no right to vote.
In 1906, Susan B. Anthony died. Sixty years of tireless work had not won her the ballot. And now it was forty years since Olympia Brown had campaigned in Kansas, but still she had no right to vote.
In 1913, two young activists named Alice Paul and Lucy Burns invited Olympia Brown to join them in a new political party called the Congressional Union. The sole purpose of the Congressional Union was to pass an amendment to the Constitution stating that the right of citizens to vote could not be denied because of sex. Olympia joined them at once. In 1916, the party changed its name to the Woman’s Party, and they worked hard trying to defeat President Woodrow Wilson’s bid for re-election. He narrowly won the election, and in 1917, the United States entered the war known as World War I. President Wilson called it the war that would “make the world safe for democracy”. Women were told they should not oppose the President while the country was at war.
“We cannot say that the United States is a democracy as long as women cannot vote,” said Olympia Brown. “We are being asked to give up our suffrage work until the war is over. Women were asked to do this same thing during the Civil War. They were told that as soon as the war was over and the Negro enfranchised, they would be given the ballot. But that did not happen. Instead they were ridiculed for wanting to vote and we still do not have the ballot.” It was now fifty years since Olympia Brown had campaigned in Kansas, and still she had no right to vote.
When President Wilson went to France at the end of the war, the Woman’s Party staged a demonstration in front of a fire. A frail, old woman, tiny but full of energy, stepped up to the flames to burn a copy of President Wilson’s speech. “America has fought for France and the common cause of liberty,” said Olympia Brown, who was now 83 years old. “I have fought for liberty for seventy years, and I protest against the President’s leaving the country with this old fight here unwon.” The crowd burst into applause and cheers.
When President Wilson returned, he finally gave his support to woman suffrage, and Congress passed the 19th amendment. On Election Day morning, Nov. 2, 1920, Olympia Brown made her way to the polling station. She was one of the first to vote. It was 53 years since she had campaigned in Kansas, and she had won the right to vote at last.