12/26/2016 9:36:00 AM Illinois History: Lottie Holman O'Neill was Illinois' first female state legislator
By Tom Emery Breeze-Courier columnist
ILLINOIS — Like most states, politics in Illinois through the early 20th-century were male-dominated, but when women gained the right to vote in Illinois in 1913 and nationwide in 1920, more women ran for office themselves. Among them was Lottie Holman O’Neill, who became Illinois’ first female state legislator in 1922.
Born on Nov. 7, 1878 in the Pike County town of Barry, O’Neill grew up on a farm, received her early education in rural schools, and moved to Chicago after earning a business degree. She married businessman William O’Neill in 1904 and, four years later, moved to Downers Grove in the suburbs.
Despite recent reforms, opportunities for women were still limited in the era, but Holman made the most of it. She was deeply interested in politics and current affairs, particularly voting rights, and was an active member of the League of Women Voters. It was one of many organizations in which Holman gained knowledge and expertise.
One of her political heroes was Jeanette Rankin, a Montana activist who became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. Four years later, with the encouragement of her husband, O’Neill ran for a seat in the 41st District and won election on her 44th birthday.
Her election caused a minor issue in the Illinois capitol, which had no women’s restroom on the third floor, where the House and Senate chambers are located. More than 1,000 women attended her swearing-in. In the House, she was an advocate for parks, schools, women’s work rights, and disabled children.
Within a few years, several other women had followed Holman into Illinois political office. In 1924, Florence Fifer Bohrer, the daughter of former Gov. Joseph Fifer, became the first woman elected to the Illinois State Senate. A Republican from McLean County, Bohrer served for four terms.
In 1922, Winifred Mason Huck became the first woman from Illinois to hold Congressional office when she won a special election to fill the unexpired term of her late father, longtime Representative and Senator William Mason. A journalist who advocated pacifist measures, Huck tried unsuccessfully to gain the Republican nomination for re-election, as well as for another vacant Congressional seat later in 1923. Her few weeks in Washington were her only public office.
Six years later, Ruth Hanna McCormick became the first Illinois woman to win a statewide election when she won an at-large Congressional seat as a Republican. The daughter of powerful U.S. Sen. Mark Hanna of Ohio and the widow of U.S. Sen. Joseph Medill McCormick, she operated a dairy farm and published newspapers in the Rockford area.
McCormick then ran for U.S. Senator in 1930, routing incumbent Charles Deneen in the primary before falling to Democrat James Hamilton Lewis in the general election.
O’Neill stayed around longer than any of them. She spent nearly forty years in the General Assembly, broken only by an unsuccessful primary bid for state senator in 1930. Later that year, she ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent, backed by the Anti-Saloon League.
In all, O’Neill won election to thirteen terms in the Illinois House. A devoted conservative, she opposed the popular New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but managed to win re-election throughout the 1930s, a dominant era for Democrats.
In 1950, O’Neill was elected to the Illinois Senate, this time on her 72nd birthday, and maintained her conservative beliefs, speaking out against the United Nations, the federal income tax, and state and federal spending and regulations. She successfully backed a measure that required eighth-grade students in Illinois to pass a proficiency exam on the Constitution.
A delegate to the 1956 Republican National Convention, her peers referred to her as the “conscience of the Senate.” She was never afraid to call out fellow members for hypocrisy, selfishness, or selling out principles.
Despite her political success, O’Neill enjoyed a relatively calm home life. In 1930, a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that her husband was a businessman “of moderate means” and that she kept house for her two “bachelor sons,” who had taken over the family business. That paper further described the O’Neill home in Downers Grove as “comfortable, though not pretentious.”
O’Neill retired from the Senate in 1963 at age 84, ending a remarkable four-decade run in Springfield. At the time, she was the longest-serving female elected official in the nation. O’Neill died on Feb. 17, 1967.
She was buried in her adopted hometown of Downers Grove, where a middle school is named in her honor. A statue of O’Neill was dedicated in the rotunda of the Illinois State capitol building in 1976.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.