TBT: Blazing a Trail to Springfield

Illinois state legislators Katherine Hancock Goode, Florence Fifer Bohrer,
Rena Elrod, and Lottie Holman O’Neill pictured in Springfield in 1925.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
One hundred years ago, Illinois became the first state in the nation to ratify the 19th Amendment, extending equal voting rights to women. It took another year for 35 more states to follow suit, but the Amendment was eventually ratified in August 1920. It did not take long for a pair of Illinois trailblazers to start on their way to becoming the first women elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

Lottie Holman O’Neill (R-Downers Grove) had been involved in the fight for equal voting rights in Illinois for years. She was a member of her local Business and Professional Women chapter, as well as one of the forerunner groups which became the League of Women Voters. When the suffrage movement achieved its victory, she sought to become one of the representatives of the 41st district. In November 1922, she was elected and became Illinois’ first female state representative.

Lottie Holman O’Neill in the 53rd, 67th, and 72nd General Assemblies.
When Rep. O’Neill took the oath of office on January 3, 1923, more than 1000 women from around the state were on hand to witness the historic occasion. She got to work right away, backing legislation for better working conditions for women, help for disabled children and support for public education. Like many new legislators, she found the pace of activity in Springfield frustrating, as only a few of her bills moved during her first year in office. But Rep. O’Neill didn’t quit.

Altogether, O’Neill spent 40 years in the Illinois General Assembly. She ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1930, but came back to the House in 1932. A 1950 bid for a Senate seat was successful, and she was a member of that body until her retirement in 1963.

O’Neill proved to be a popular legislator, both among her constituents and in Springfield. She earned a reputation as “the conscience of the Senate,” by the end of her time in that chamber. She supported prohibition, even running as an independent for the U.S. Senate with the backing of the Anti-Saloon League. She was outspoken in her opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s, and later opposed American involvement in the United Nations, and the federal income tax. She was also a vocal opponent of wasteful government spending. Believing in the importance of civics education, O’Neill also supported legislation that required 8th graders in Illinois to pass a Constitution test.

Retiring from the Senate in 1963 at the age of 84, O’Neill’s famous wit was still on display. Informed that friends wished to place a statue of her in the Capitol’s second floor rotunda, she declined the honor. The rotunda already included a statue an old nemesis, Senator Richard Barr. O’Neill informed friends that she did not wish to “face that scoundrel Dick Barr for all eternity across the rotunda.”

O’Neill died in 1967. Her 40 years in office made her the longest-tenured female elected official in America at that time. But the story does not end there. Less than a decade later, her friends once again brought up the idea of a statue in the rotunda to honor her history-making service. In 1976, a statue was dedicated to Lottie Holman O’Neill, but perhaps to satisfy at least part of her wish, its counterpart across the rotunda is not the statue of Senator Barr, but a painting of George Washington.

Florence Fifer Bohrer. Photo from the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
Two years after Rep. O’Neill won her seat in the Illinois House, Florence Fifer Bohrer (R-Bloomington) became the first woman elected to the Illinois Senate. Senator Bohrer had learned much about politics from an early age. She was the daughter of Governor Joseph Fifer. During Governor Fifer’s term, his precocious daughter had found the activity in the statehouse to be more interesting than her lessons in school. She was known to sneak into a large comfortable chair in the Governor’s office and observe the meetings and conversations in which the various state leaders were involved.

Her first foray into politics and government came in 1910 when her daughter Gertrude was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease which quickly spread amongst her classmates and eventually killed her teacher. Bohrer helped organize a local effort to create a tuberculosis sanitarium in McLean County and led a prevention effort. This campaign soon branched out into a nutrition program for students in local schools. Eventually the sanitarium effort required legislation in Springfield and a local referendum. Bohrer was instrumental in the passage of both.

She chaired the Home Service Committee of the Red Cross during World War I, assisting families of local soldiers. She also headed the committee to build a new Girls Industrial Home. Somewhere along the way she created a “Mother’s Club” at her children’s school, which was an early version of today’s Parent-Teacher Organization. By 1924, with the local Republican committee searching for a Senate candidate, her years of service to the community made her an obvious pick.

Bohrer campaigned hard and defeated the incumbent in the primary. Her platform of support for law enforcement, lower taxes, good roads and aid for farmers carried her to an overwhelming victory in the fall. As with Rep. O’Neill two years earlier, her swearing-in ceremony was attended by hundreds of women from all across the state.

The new Senator’s work earned her the chairmanship of the Committee to Visit Charitable Institutions, as well as seats on committees overseeing prisons, agriculture, industrial affairs, parks, public health and many more. One of her first pieces of legislation to pass was a bill which delegated to the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings control over state parks. She also sponsored the bill which made “Illinois” our state song.

Florence Fifer Bohrer and Adlai Stevenson II in 1951.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential
 Library & Museum.
Senator Bohrer put all of her considerable energy and determination into her work. During her time chairing the Public Welfare Committee, she personally inspected institutions from one end of the state to the other. At the state hospital in Moline she was briefly detained when she introduced herself as a Senator only to have the receptionist assume she was mentally ill. She would later make light of the situation while breakfasting with the hospital administrator the next morning and for many years afterward.

During her second term, Bohrer proposed a broad reform of the child welfare system in Illinois, starting with a top-to-bottom review of the state’s laws on the subject. Some, but not all, of her reforms were passed into law. She also led an effort at payroll reform after a series of scandals.

After eight years in the Senate, Bohrer was swept out of office during the FDR landslide of 1932. With the depression striking nearly everyone in the community, she committed herself once again to local volunteer efforts in support of those in need. Bohrer chaired the McLean County Emergency Relief Office, helping more than 15,000 county residents find some kind of assistance.

She formed a local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV), eventually rising to its national board in 1936. Today, her service is remembered by the McLean County LWV chapter, which bestows the Florence Fifer Bohrer Award on “a member of the McLean County community devoted to community service and making a difference.”

Florence Fifer Bohrer died in 1960. She is buried in Park Hill Cemetery in Bloomington. Late in life, she summed up her career in public service succinctly: “I saw a thing to do, and I did it.”