Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Olney Brown, 1821-1886
By Shanna Stevenson, independent historian
Wielding a Trenchant Pen
Mary Olney was born February 7, 1821 at Avon, Livingston County, New York to William Olney and Charlotte Tanner Olney. From records of the family, it appears the elder Olneys later lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. Mary Olney married Benjamin F. Brown on February 16, 1840 in Jefferson, Iowa. Brown, often a supporter of his wife's equal suffrage advocacy, was born in New Jersey in 1815-1816.
By 1850, the Browns were still in Iowa with four children (1850 census). Looking at Donation Land Claim application records and family birth records, the Browns remained in Iowa when their child Charles Sumner Brown was born on April 2, 1852 in Des Moines. They came to Oregon Territory with the George and Emily Olney French family and Benjamin and Jane Olney - leaving from Iowa by ox team in April 1852. By June 1852, the Browns, underway on the Oregon Trail, lost a child, Ellen Brown, who died June 9, 1852 on the Platte River "on the Plains," according to a family bible entry. (Some reminiscences say the Browns came West in 1846, but that does not appear to be correct with the 1850 census, family bible, French and DLC records.) They reached the end of the trail in October 1852 and by 1853 were living on their claim in West Olympia.
According to the Browns' Donation Land Claim application, they settled in Thurston County near Olympia in March 1853. The Browns had a farm and orchard and were partners in building a wharf in the area. Mary Olney Brown's sister and fellow suffragist, Emily Olney French lived near her in West Olympia on an adjoining claim.
The Browns continued adding to their large family with a daughter born in Olympia 1854, two more sons in 1856 and 1858, and a daughter in 1865. Mary Olney Brown bore eleven children in all, with five living to adulthood.
It is unknown where Mrs. Brown secured her extraordinary writing ability showcased in writings on suffrage in local newspapers and legislative work. She was also a poet.
Her brother, Cyrus Olney, attended law school in Ohio and was a prosecuting attorney and judge in Ohio before moving to Oregon where he was a Territorial Supreme Court Justice by 1853. According to one account, Cyrus Olney provided the Browns with plant nursery stock that they brought to the Olympia area.
In History of Woman Suffrage, Mrs. Brown notes that before sessions of the legislature in Olympia, the Washington Territorial Capital, she would solicit petitions signed by the women of the state for women's voting rights. The 1865-1867 voting laws of Washington Territory gave "all white citizen above the age of twenty-one years" the right to vote.
According to family information, the Browns moved to the Slaughter, now Auburn, Washington around 1866 and claimed land there. In 1869 according to the History of Woman Suffrage, Mrs. Brown along with her daughter, Eliza Axtell, accompanied by their husbands, tried to vote in elections at the schoolhouse there but were turned away from the polls. This was part of the New Departure movement. She detailed her experience including her reasoned arguments to election judges based on women as citizens under U.S. Constitutional Amendments and the 1860s Washington laws.
In May 1870, Brown published letters in local papers including the Olympia Transcript under the nom de plume "Equal Rights," (one she would use frequently) urging women to go to the polls based on these arguments.
In June, 1870 fifteen women in Grand Mound and Littlerock (Black River) in Thurston County, Washington went to the polls and had their votes counted, among them was Emily Olney French, Mary Olney Brown's sister then living in the area. Mary Olney Brown along with Jane Wiley, Jane Pattison and her husband Benjamin Brown and Pattison's husband were turned away at the polls in Olympia at the same election. Their voting is detailed in the History of Woman Suffrage, volume 3. [LINK]
In 1871, Susan B. Anthony, accompanied by Oregonian Abigail Scott Duniway, toured the Northwest. On October 27, 1871, Mrs. Brown was among 16 women who published a call for a Territorial Suffrage Association Convention for Olympia, starting November 8, 1871 in Olympia in Duniway's paper The New Northwest. Anthony wrote Mary Olney Brown's name in her diary on November 1, 1871. It is unknown if Anthony met with Mrs. Brown in the Seattle area, but it appears likely.
At the 1871 suffrage convention, Mary Olney Brown was an attendee and played a significant role as an organizer and member of the Executive Committee at the gathering. Two of her daughters, Eliza Brown Axtell (who had gone to the polls with her mother in 1869) and Mary Brown Lotz were noted as calling for the convention.
Mrs. Brown supported universal suffrage, writing in October 1872 in a letter, "The Right of Colored Women to Vote," sent to the New National Era, edited and published by Frederick Douglass and his sons. There she developed the same argument with regard to "colored women" that Susan B. Anthony and others of "The New Departure" were making with regard to women's right to vote more generally. She wrote "That the right to vote was intended to be given to colored women as well as to colored men, is proven by the way in which the Fifteenth Amendment reads." She is claiming for black women the same rights granted black men as citizens. The Supreme Court ultimately was not convinced, as became clear in its 1875 decision, Minor v. Happersett.
Mrs. Brown sent a missive to the Territorial Suffrage Association of Seattle, when the organization again convened in Olympia in 1873. Likewise she was a correspondent from Washington Territory to the National Woman Suffrage Association Convention in 1874.
By 1874-75 Mrs. Brown was known as Dr. Mary O. Brown in Olympia newspapers, described as a "Physician and Accoucher [midwife]" operating from an office in downtown Olympia. In Tillicum Tales, the author details her work in effecting cures with a water treatment, calling her "Mrs. Coldwater Brown." In a letter to a relative in 1861 she mentioned the "Watercure Journal."
Brown was nominated as President of the Washington Territorial Woman Suffrage Association in 1874.
In 1876, as President of the Washington Territory Woman's Suffrage Association (WTWSA), Brown wrote a "Centennial Protest of the Women of Washington Territory," in The New Northwest.
Mrs. Brown detailed her work ahead of the 1878 Constitutional Convention for creating Washington State which was held in Walla Walla, Washington in June 1878. She noted the WTWSA failed to take action so she took on the task, writing and sending petitions to every town with a post office asking that "male" be left out of the constitution, presumably for voting. She canvassed Olympia for signatures herself--securing 300 names. As part of her efforts, she wrote a five-part series about "Equality of Citizenship" in The New Northwest in February-March, 1878. The Constitutional Convention convened, receiving 600 petition names for women's voting rights and heard Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway but failed to include woman suffrage in the Constitution, which although ratified by Washington residents, was a moot point since statehood for Washington was declined by Congress. Washington did not become a state until 1889.
Mary Olney Brown also wrote about her role in the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1881 in History of Woman Suffrage--she recalled being the author of the women's voting rights legislation introduced in that session. She collaborated with Abbie Howard Hunt Stuart, founder of the Woman's Club of Olympia, she recalled, to write legislation and it was introduced by a sympathetic legislator, George Comegys. Abigail Scott Duniway was present to speak before the legislature and wrote in TheNew Northwest about the near victory of the vote which passed the House but failed by two votes in the Council. She noted Mrs. Brown's presence at the proceedings.
After the close vote in 1881, the Washington Territorial Legislature passed women's voting rights in 1883. Abigail Scott Duniway lauded Mary Olney Brown "as a consistent and able worker in the movement for forty years."
The voter registration rolls for the City of Olympia in 1883 include Mary Olney Brown.
Mrs. Brown was an honorary Vice-President for Washington Territory for the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1885.
Mary Olney Brown died in November 1886--her obituary: "Dr. Mary O. Brown, a resident of Thurston County since early in the 50s, died at her home on Westside, Tuesday morning, after a short illness, aged 65 years . . . Mrs. Brown was a woman of more than ordinary intellectual endowments and a zealous advocate of many of the modern measures of reform. She was for many years engaged in the "water-cure," practice of healing disease, and a firm advocate of equality of race and sex before the law. She wielded [sic] a trenchant pen, and many of her essays have aided very materially in shaping popular sentiment towards woman's enfranchisement."
"An Appeal to the Women of W. T.," Olympia Transcript, May 28, 1870.
Mrs. Georgiana Blankenship, comp., Early History of Thurston County, Washington, Olympia: np, 1914. (Facsimile Reproduction The Shorey Book Store Seattle, WA: 1972) pg. 116-21.
Brown Family Genealogical Resources. Accessed 0online at http://browngenealogy.org/.
Donation Land Claim microfilm No. 252 Benjamin F. Brown-- accessed at the Washington State Library.
Library of Congress, Susan B. Anthony Papers: Daybook and Diaries, 1856-1906; Diaries; 1865, November 1, 1871 accessed at: https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11049.mss11049-001_00683_00886/?sp=159
TheNew Northwest, October 27, 1871; "Centennial Protest of the Women of Washington Territory," The New Northwest, July 14, 1876, pg. 2; The New Northwest: February 19, 1878; March 8, 1878; March 15, 1878; March 22, 1878 and March 29, 1878; "The Washington Legislature," The New Northwest, November 10, 1881, pg. 1; The New Northwest, November 29, 1883, pg. 1.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, 6 volumes (Rochester and New York City, 1881-1922), account by Mary Olney Brown, 3:781, 782, 784-786; 2:545.
Washington Standard, October 28, 1871, pg. 2; Washington Standard, November 11, 1871, pg. 2; Washington Standard, October 24, 1874, pg. 3; "Dr. Mary O. Brown Physician and Accoucher," Washington Standard, September 25, 1875, pg. 4; Washington Standard, November 19, 1886, pg. 3.
Washington State Archives SW540-3-0-5_p0045.
The Woman's Tribune. Vol. 2, No. 5. March 1885.
Mary Olney Brown, "The Right of Colored Women to Vote," New National Era, Oct. 24, 1872, p. 1.