Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Isabelle Ahearn O'Neill, 1880-1975
by J. Stanley Lemons, Emeritus Professor of History, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI.
Suffragist, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, United League of Women Voters, Legislator
O'Neill, a teacher of elocution and physical education and a stage and screen actor, was a suffragist and vigorous political campaigner who fought for women's rights. She became the first woman elected to the Rhode Island legislature.
Isabelle Ahearn O'Neill was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on June 8, 1880, the last of ten children of Daniel and Mary (O'Conner) Ahearn. She married John Aloysius O'Neill on November 25, 1907. They had one child named John who was born in November 1908, but died of meningitis just three weeks after his third birthday. Her marriage was shorter than their son's life. Both Isabelle and John had dominant, powerful personalities, and Isabelle would not be submissive. They were separated by 1910 and John disappeared from her life. Being a strict Roman Catholic, Isabelle never divorced. She died in Providence March 17, 1975 from pneumonia and heart disease.
Isabelle was the favorite child of her father who indulged her within the limits of a strict Irish Catholic upbringing. She was not only the first in her family to attend high school, but the family was successful enough in their many enterprises to afford the luxury of an advanced education for her. She attended Lynn School of Oratory in Providence, the Boston College of Drama and Oratory, and Dr. Sargent's School of Physical Education in Cambridge. She opened her own academy, the Ahearn School of Oratory, Drama, and Physical Education in 1900, and from then until she married John Aloysius O'Neill in 1907, she annually presented public recitals of her students at the Providence Opera House. In addition, she taught elocution and physical education in the parochial schools in the Providence area.
Isabelle met John O'Neill one summer at Matunuck, and they fell in love. However, Isabelle's father disapproved of John, but Isabelle's independent streak asserted itself and they eloped to get married. The death of her son deeply affected Isabelle for a time. She spent the next several years touring the country for the New York Dramatic League on behalf of "clean theater" and threw herself into acting. She played a leading lady for the Empire Stock Company and, in 1915, joined the acting troupe of the Eastern Film Corporation, a new silent screen production company.
By 1919 she had turned her dramatic and oratorical talents to the cause of woman suffrage. The campaign for suffrage climaxed in Rhode Island between 1917 and 1920, and she was part of that effort. She was member of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, which had been founded in December 1868 by Paul Wright Davis and Elizabeth Buffum Chace. Rhode Island ratified the Nineteenth Amendment in January 1920, and Isabelle joined the United League of Women Voters - the successor to the Equal Suffrage Association. One of the committees of the United League of Women Voters was the Disarmament Committee (a favorite idea of Carrie Chapman Catt, the founder of the National League of Women Voters), and Isabelle wrote a one act play entitled The Fifth Commandment which was preformed around the Providence area. She also enrolled in the league's School of Government Procedure and served in the mock legislature that the league created.
In 1920, Isabelle vigorously campaigned for Democratic candidates, speaking as many as four times a day at rallies, often as the featured speaker. She was back on the stump again in 1922 and chaired the William S. Flynn Auxiliary Committee. She presided over a party rally at the Narragansett Hotel in Providence in October 1922, an event that the Providence News declared to be "the first political rally in this State to be president over by a woman." Flynn swept into the governor's seat in the greatest Democratic success in Rhode Island since 1902. Isabelle also won, becoming the first woman to win a seat in the General Assembly. Hers was a hard-fought campaign during which she made about a hundred speeches. The Providence Journal said that hers were "some of the best speeches of the campaign. And she did it without a physical setback." She confounded the usual notion that a woman was too frail for such rigor.
She proclaimed her allegiance to the women's reform agenda. She declared, "I am a member of the United League of Women Voters [and] I shall work to further all the measures endorsed by that organization." The list included aid to dependent children, a forty-eight hour workweek law for women, a night-work law for women, a bill to prohibit women from working four weeks before and four weeks after childbirth, state participation in the Shepard-Towner maternity and infancy protection act, prohibition enforcement, prohibition of child labor, appointment of home teachers for foreign-born women, equal pay for women teachers, teachers pensions, jury service for women and office holding. And, in line with the League of Women Voters, she adamantly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment being promoted by the National Woman's Party.
If the party leaders in the General Assembly expected her to be a submissive follower, she soon disabused them of that notion. Rhode Island had refused to ratify the Prohibition Amendment, and the Democratic Party heavily favored the repeal of prohibition, but Isabelle always voted for stricter enforcement and against any such effort. She was one of only four Democrats who voted to create a state police force in Rhode Island, even publicly clashing with the Democratic minority leader in the House.
None of these differences damaged her standing with the party. She was chosen to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1924, 1928, and 1932. She was Rhode Island's Democratic national committeewoman from 1932 to 1936. She served four terms in the Rhode Island House of Representatives before winning a seat in the state Senate in 1930. In her first term in the Senate she was unanimously elected to be a Democratic deputy floor leader, making her the first woman to have a leadership position in the General Assembly. Re-elected in 1932, she resigned her seat in 1933 when she was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be a legislative representative for the U. S. Bureau of Narcotics. She remained with that agency until 1943 when she resigned to return home to Providence to care for her sister who was going blind. She secured a position in the R.I. Department of Labor as a cost-of-living investigator and was still doing this in 1953, at age seventy-three when she retired. She lived two more decades, dying in 1975.
Interview with Mary Fleming, niece who cared for Isabelle Ahearn O'Neill.
"Autobiography- Isabelle Ahearn O'Neill," papers in the possession of Mary Fleming
Rhode Island State Census, 1885;
Twelfth Census of the United States (1900), vol. 8, Enumeration District 87, sheet 8.
Woonsocket Street Directory, 1875-1892; Providence City Directory, 1893-1899.
Providence Journal; Providence News; Providence Tribune; Providence Evening Bulletin; Boston American; Boston Post; Boston Daily Record.