Isabelle Ahearn O’Neill, first woman elected to the Rhode Island Legislature

By Ken Dooley

Her Irish friends would agree that Isabelle Ahearn O’Neill, a stage and screen actor of the silent film era, a suffragist, and the first woman elected to the Rhode Island Legislature, died most appropriately on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1975. The resolution passed by the Rhode Island House of Representatives recognizing March 8, 2007, as “Women’s History Day” specifically mentioned O’Neill’s accomplishment in becoming the state’s first woman legislator “just two short years after women gained the right to vote.” To call her a pioneer would be an understatement. Woonsocket-born in 1880, Isabelle was the youngest of 13 children and came to Providence in 1892 with her family. She attended the Boston College of Drama and Oratory and Dr. Sargent’s classes in Physical Education at Harvard University. Marrying John O’Neill in 1907, she had one child who died at three. Her marriage ended later in divorce, but she never remarried.

A powerful speaker, Isabelle was an actress on the vaudeville stage and in silent films, establishing the Ahearn School of Elocution in 1900 when she was 20 years old. Her students gave recitals at the Providence Opera House. She also worked as an actor for nearly two decades (1900–18), taking both lead and supporting roles in primarily summer stock and vaudeville shows in Rhode Island and New York. In 1915, she began to take roles in silent films like Joe Lincoln’s Cape Cod Stories, made by the Providence-based Eastern Film Corporation. O’Neill became an active suffragist and began campaigning for Democratic candidates in Rhode Island. 

Perhaps inspired by her father, a former councilman, she entered politics and made history in 1922 as the first woman elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly. O’Neill’s acting career and divorced status made her a somewhat risqué choice, but her solid Catholic background and maternalistic agenda affirmed her respectability. In that election year, she also chaired the women’s committee for the gubernatorial campaign of William S. Flynn.

Like other female politicians of her day, she built a career on “women’s” issues such as pensions for widowed mothers, better teacher pay, and protections for female workers. On June 18, 1923, she steered a maternity bill through the House, the first of its kind in the nation, only to see it killed in Senate Committee. Not content with the support of her middle-class Irish American peers, she courted the state’s polyglot electorate by delivering speeches in French and Italian. After eight years in the House of Representatives, the popular Smith Hill legislator moved to the State Senate and served as deputy Democratic floor leader, the first woman in the nation to hold this position. Another career highlight came in 1924 when she was temporarily Chair of the Democratic National Convention.

Throughout her career, O’Neill was known for her outspoken and principled stands. Despite, or perhaps, because of her unconventional life, O’Neill’s coreligionists seized on her as a model of activist Catholic womanhood, frequently inviting her to speak to parish groups on such topics as “Women in Politics.” At the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, she left the state Senate after only two years to serve as the president’s legislative liaison to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In 1943, she resigned and returned to her home state, where she took an executive position at the Rhode Island Labor Department to work on the cost-of-living index. She retired from government service in 1954 and passed away in 1975 at the age of ninety-four.

In 2011, the YWCA of Rhode Island created the Isabelle Ahearn O’Neill Award in her memory to honor the state’s women leaders. She was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2014.

Ken Dooley is a director of the Heritage Harbor Foundation.

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