Isabelle Florence Ahearn O’Neill

Inducted: 2014
Born: 1880
Died: 1975

Isabelle A. O’Neill was a stage and screen actor of the silent film era, a suffragist, and the first woman elected to the Rhode Island Legislature. She also served in the state Senate and, under President Franklin Roosevelt, in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. She was born on June 8, 1880, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the youngest of thirteen children of Mary J. (O’Connor) Ahearn and Daniel Ahearn. Isabelle was her father’s favorite child, 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 her the luxury of an advanced education. 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 academy, the Ahearn School of Oratory, Drama, and Physical Education, in 1900, and 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, Rhode Island, and they fell in love. However, Isabelle’s father disapproved of John, but Isabelle’s independent streak asserted itself, and they eloped 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 her son’s life. Isabelle and John had dominant, powerful personalities, and she would not be submissive. They were separated by 1910, and John disappeared from her life. Being a strict Roman Catholic, Isabelle never divorced.

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 women’s suffrage. The Campaign for suffrage climaxed in Rhode Island between 1917 and 1920, and she was part of that effort. She was a Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association member, 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 United League of Women Voters committees was the Disarmament Committee (a favorite idea of Carrie Chapman Catt, the founder of the National League of Women Voters). Isabelle wrote a one-act play, The Fifth Commandment, performed 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 “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.

“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, Dr. Evelyn Sterne, history professor at the University of Rhode Island, wrote in Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence. “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. Throughout her career, O’Neill was known for her outspoken and principled stands. One political columnist noted, ‘She has made it a practice to be heard from regularly and at frequent intervals ever since she was 17 years old,’ Dr. Sterne wrote. “Despite or perhaps because of her unconventional life, O’Neill’s coreligionists seized on her as a model of activist womanhood, frequently inviting her to speak to parish groups on such topics as ‘Women in Politics.’ 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, the appointment of home teachers for foreign-born women, equal pay for women teachers, teachers pensions, jury service for women and office holding.”

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 repealing prohibition, but Isabelle consistently voted for stricter enforcement and was 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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her 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 died 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.”

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

For additional reading:

1. Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence, Dr. Evelyn Sterne, Cornell University Press, 2004 (paperback edition, 2008).

2. O’Neill, Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920. 

3. Adler, Emily Stier, and J. Stanley Lemons. “The Independent Woman: Rhode Island’s First Woman Legislator,” Rhode Island History (February 1991)

4. McAvoy, Mary Carey. “Isabelle Ahearn O’Neill: Little Rhody’s Lone Theodora,” Woman’s Voice (March 1931).

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