Lottie Holman O'Neill: First Woman Illinois
Legislator (R-Downers Grove)

Long before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote nationwide, state Rep. Lottie Holman O’Neill (R-Downers Grove) was hard at work for the causes she believed in.

A native of Pike County, in western Illinois, Rep. O’Neill married in 1904 and moved to the Chicago area to pursue a career. She was inspired to enter politics by U.S. Rep. Jeanette Rankin (R-Montana), who became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916. She became active in the Business and Professional Women, and before long she was an activist for equal voting rights, working with the League of Women Voters during the debate on the 19th Amendment. Illinois gradually granted women the right to vote – starting in 1913 with legislation allowing women to vote only for President, but O’Neill would not be satisfied until women had access to the entire ballot.

Her efforts bore fruit when Illinois became the first state in the union to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920. When it came time for candidates to declare for the 1922 elections, Lottie Holman O’Neill announced that she would be a candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives. Victorious in 1922, Rep. O’Neill represented a wide swath of territory running from Elgin, in Kane County, southeast through DuPage and Will County to the Indiana border.

Rep. O’Neill sponsored legislation establishing an eight-hour work day for women in Illinois. She also was an advocate for disabled children and for parks, as well as schools and civil rights. In 1930 she ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois Senate, but after returning to the House, she made history again in 1950 when she ran a second time for the Senate and became Illinois’ first female Senator.

O’Neill continued to make her presence known in the Senate, where she was an opponent of growing state budgets and excessive regulations. She was a delegate to the 1956 Republican convention, and was outspoken on federal issues as well. Sen. O’Neill retired in 1962 after 40 years in the General Assembly – making her the longest-serving female elected official in America at that time, a record which has since been eclipsed. By the time she retired, Sen. O’Neill was so respected by her colleagues that she had become known as the “conscience of the Senate.”

Upon her retirement, Sen. O’Neill declined an invitation to have a statue of her placed in the rotunda of the Illinois Statehouse. She told friends that she did not want her statue to face the “scoundrel” who defeated her in the 1930 Senate primary “for all eternity across the rotunda.” Following her death in 1967, a school was named for her in Downers Grove, but friends later decided to honor her achievement anyway, placing her statue in the rotunda in 1976. In accordance with her wish, however, she does not face her old rival: he is to her right with Mayor Richard J. Daley between them.