Lila Sapinsley, a trailblazer for women in Rhode Island politics and beloved wife of John Sapinsley. She was a state Senator for Rhode Island and rose to Senate minority leader. In 1972, Lila Sapinsley was elected to the state Senate and became Senate Majority Leader, the first woman to hold a leadership post in the Rhode Island General Assembly.
A native of Chicago, Sapinsley moved to Rhode Island in the 1950s. She became involved in politics early on, doing the jobs women were allowed to do: addressing envelopes, phoning voters and handing out brochures. This was not enough for her and she bravely forged her own path. In 1964, Lila Sapinsley created “Democrats for Chafee”, an advocacy group for the gubernatorial campaign of Republican John Chafee. Following his victory, she was appointed to the Rhode Island Board of Trustees of Stage Colleges; later becoming the first woman chair. When the General Assembly abolished the board in 1972, she ran for the state Senate. Her first assignment was to study the hairdressing law. Not content to submit to the patriarchy, she went on to break barriers and work tirelessly on behalf of women. Her goal was to have “She opened the meetings of the General Assembly.” on her tombstone.
In 1972, she ran for Rhode Island Senate as an Independent and quickly rose to become the first female minority leader in the Rhode Island Senate. She fought for women’s issues and favored government transparency and ethics legislation. After an unsuccessful run for Lieutenant Governor in 1984, Sapinsley became chairwoman of the Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corporation for two years beginning in 1985, working to improve the RIHMFC’s reputation. She then became the commissioner of the Public Utilities Commission, serving until her retirement in 1993.
Sapinsley was very active in her retirement years, volunteering for the Providence Public Library; for Dorcas Place, a parent literacy center; as a co-chair of Senator John Chafee’s campaign for re-election; and serving on the Board of Trustees for the American Civil Liberties Union, Butler Hospital, the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island, Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, Temple Beth El and the Wellesley Center for Research on Women. She earned honorary degrees from URI, RIC and Brown. She was also awared the Legislator of the Year award by the National Conference of Republican Legislators and was the two-time Woman of the Year, according to the Governor’s commission on Women.
She was married to John M. Sapinsley for nearly 70 years before his death in 2012. The devoted couple shared a passion for the performing arts which led to an endowment of a theater at RIC named in their honor.
Lila Sapinsley’s death at 92 came as a shock to those who knew her. She continued to be active in politics until her death, tutoring and influencing many Rhode Island political figures and continuing to nurture them. She also campaigned for female politicians and exercised her right to vote. Lila Sapinsley is survived by her four daughters and a legacy that paved the way for Gina Raimondo to become the first female governor of Rhode Island and many women to follow.