The small state of Rhode Island joined larger ones in electing a woman to its legislature in 1922, the first realistic opportunity. Isabella Ahearn O’Neill went on to a long political career.
Isabella Ahearn O’Neill (1880-1975)
The youngest of thirteen children, Isabella Ahearn, studied at Boston College of Drama and Oratory, a good preparation for a career in politics. The highly entrepreneurial young woman returned to her Providence home and established the Ahearn School of Elocution in 1900.
She wed John O’Neill in 1907, but the 1911 death of their child meant the end of the marriage. Divorce also was unusual at the time, but she kept her married name. For the next eighteen years, O’Neill both acted in and directed productions at the Providence Opera House. She also acted in several silent films from 1915 onwards.
A Democrat, she was interested in politics as well as theater, and at the first 1922 opportunity, won elect for the Rhode Island Assembly. One factor in her success was that the state capital also was her hometown, and she eventually rose to be deputy Democratic floor leader. Perhaps the nation’s first woman to hold this position, she served eight years in the lower chamber before winning a seat in the Rhode Island Senate in 1932.
O’Neill served just two years of her senate term before resigning to accept appointment as President Franklin Roosevelt’s legislative liaison to the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics. O’Neill held this position through the Great Depression and most of WWII. She resigned in 1943 to return home, where she held an executive position with the Rhode Island Department of Labor until her 1954 retirement.
Isabella Ahearn O’Neill built a solid political career without the benefit of family connections, and she overcame the stigma of divorce in a highly Catholic state. Tenacious and hardy, she died at 94.