Lottie Holman O'Neill (1878-1967)

Lottie Holman O'Neill was born on November 7, 1878 in Barry, a town near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.  After earning a business degree locally, she moved to Chicago, where she met William O'Neill. The couple wed in 1904 and had two sons.

   

Montana's Jeannette Rankin became the first woman in Congress in 1916, something that greatly inspired O'Neill.  When Illinois women were enfranchised in 1920, William encouraged Lottie to run for the legislature.  A Republican, she became a strong supporter of public schools, parks, and disabled children.  She also successfully sponsored legislation that limited women's workdays to eight hours.

   

Lottie O'Neill had a very long career:  after serving thirteen terms in the House, she became the first woman elected to the Illinois Senate – in 1950, compared with Utah, which had elected the first female state senator in 1896.  O'Neill served six terms as a senator, for a total of forty years in the legislature.

   

Although she was not in Congress, she spent a great deal of time on federal issues.   She opposed the United Nations and the federal income tax, as well as state and federal regulations and spending. She was a delegate to the 1956 Republican National Convention, which re-nominated moderate Republican Dwight Eisenhower, and supported Barry Goldwater's conservative presidential campaign in 1964.

   

Despite her strong will and independence, she was admired by all her colleagues. They referred to her as the "Conscience of the Senate," as she did not hesitate to point out when colleagues were hypocritical or selfish. She died at 88, just four years after her 1963 retirement.  A school in her hometown of Downers Grove was named for her, and a statue in the capitol at Springfield commemorates her as Illinois' first female legislator.  It was erected in 1976, and according to local lore, she had objected to its proposed placement:  it is across from that of a bitter primary opponent in 1930, and she said that she did not want to "face that scoundrel for all eternity."

Image credit: Courtesy of the Wheaton College (IL) Special Collections.