Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Gwendolen Brown Willis, 1876–1969
By Admiral Wieland and Layna Zahrt, students, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Unitarian-Universalist Church member, WI; Chairman of National Affairs in League of Women Voters, WI; American Association of University Women Member, WI; World Federalists member, WI; American Civil Liberties Union member, WI; Wisconsin Women Suffrage Association Treasurer and member, WI; Teacher, WI and MD
Gwendolen Brown Willis was born in Connecticut November 15, 1876 to John Henry Willis and Rev. Olympia Brown. The Brown-Willis family relocated from the east coast to Racine, Wisconsin in 1878 when Rev. Brown accepted a pastorate at the Church of the Good Shepherd. Gwendolen Willis Brown received her undergraduate degree from Chicago University and spent one year abroad at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. In 1904, she acquired her Ph.D. in Classical Languages from Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia. From 1904-1914, Gwendolen Brown Willis taught Greek and Latin at Downer College in Milwaukee before accepting a position at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, MD. She continued teaching there until her retirement in 1943. Gwendolen Brown Willis remained interested in community affairs until her death on April 21, 1969 in Racine at the age of 92.
In addition to her academic career, Gwendolen Brown Willis was an active member of numerous organizations, including the Unitarian-Universalist Church, the League of Women Voters as chairman of National Affairs, American Association of University Women, World Federalists, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA) where she served as treasurer from 1908-1913. Willis also chaired a committee to coordinate campaign work between the WWSA and the Political Equality League (PEL) after the politically-motivated split within the WWSA occurred in May 1912, mere months before a statewide suffrage referendum. Willis's mother, Rev. Olympia Brown, was a mentor and inspiration to her as Olympia had become president of the Wisconsin Woman's Suffrage Association in 1885. After years in this role, in 1913 she became honorary president of the association. During her time in Milwaukee, Willis worked with her mother on The Wisconsin Citizen, the WWSA's newspaper. Gwendolen Brown Willis went on lecture tours, hosted events, lectured and spoke about woman suffrage in Wisconsin; the connection between church and suffrage; raising money, and other topics. (1964). After her relocation to Maryland, Willis lobbied on behalf of the constitutional amendment for full suffrage. The Maryland state report for the History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6, records this lobbying activity in 1916.
After the death of Rev. Olympia Brown, Gwendolen Brown Willis edited and completed her mother's unpublished autobiography and donated it to the Racine Public Library. At the age of 88, although wheelchair bound, Gwendolen Willis Brown attended Racine's first civil rights march on March 14, 1965.
“Champion of Equality, Gwendolen Willis, Dies.” The Racine Weekly Journal, 22 April 1969, pp. 1-4, https://access.newspaperarchive.com/.
“From the State Capital: Items of Importance to the Wisconsin People, Gleaned at Madison.”< Waunakee Index, 8 October 1908, p. 2, https://access.newspaperarchive.com/.
“Honor Olympia Brown.” Racine Journal Times, 31 May 1963, p. 5, https://access.newspaperarchive.com/.
“League of Women Voters Starts Year at Luncheon.” The Racine Weekly Journal, 10 September 1948, p.7, https://access.newspaperarchive.com/.
“Reception Honors Gwendolen Willis, 90.” Racine Journal Times, 21 November 1966, p. 13, https://access.newspaperarchive.com/.
“Society.” The Racine Weekly Journal, 7 June 1904, p. 2, access-newspaperarchive- com.
Youmans, Theodora W. "How Wisconsin Women Won the Ballot." Wisconsin Magazine of History 5(1921-22) 3-32