Lottie Holman O'Neill (R-Downers Grove): Illinois’ First Female Member of the General Assembly

Long before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote nationwide, a young woman named Lottie Holman O’Neill from Downers Grove was paving the way for women to not only vote, but hold public office.

Originally from Pike County in western Illinois, Lottie Holman O’Neill married in 1904 and moved to Downers Grove to pursue a career. She became an activist for equal voting rights, working with the League of Women Voters during the debate on the 19th Amendment.

In 1913, women were granted the right to vote only for President of the United States, but that wasn’t good enough for Lottie. She wanted women to have access to every race on every ballot. Her persistence paid off, when Illinois became the first state in the union to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Inspired to enter politics by U.S. Rep. Jeanette Rankin (R-Montana), who became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916, in 1922 Lottie O’Neill declared her candidacy for the Illinois House of Representatives. She was successful in her bid for a Statehouse seat, and upon her swearing in Lottie Holman O’Neill became the first woman to serve as a legislator in Illinois.

Lottie’s legislative district included Downers Grove and all of what is now the 81st Legislative House District. The district also included other portions DuPage and Will Counties and extended north into Kane County and went as far east as the Indiana border. 

Representative O’Neill sponsored pivotal legislation establishing an eight-hour work day for women in Illinois. She also was a fierce advocate for disabled children and for parks, as well as for schools and civil rights.

After an unsuccessful Senate run in 1930, Lottie returned to her role in the House of Representatives. However, in 1950 made history again when she ran a second time for the Illinois Senate and became our state’s first female Senator. During her time in the Senate, Senator O’Neill was an opponent of growing state budgets and excessive regulations. She served as a delegate at the 1956 Republican convention, and was outspoken on federal issues as well.

Sen. O’Neill retired in 1962 after 40 years in the General Assembly – making her the longest-serving female elected official in America at the time. Widely respected by lawmakers from both chambers and from both sides of the aisle, Senator O’Neill ultimately became known as the “conscience of the Senate.”
Upon her retirement, Sen. O’Neill declined an invitation to have a statue of her placed in the rotunda of the Illinois Statehouse. At the time she said she did not want a statue of her to face the “scoundrel” who beat her in that 1930 Senate race.

Following her death in 1967, a school was named for her in Downers Grove. In honor of this extraordinary woman and her role in the advancement of women in government and rights for women everywhere, the State of Illinois honored Lottie O’Neill by placing her statue in the 2nd Floor rotunda in 1976. In accordance with her wishes, however, she does not face her old rival: he is to her right with Mayor Richard J. Daley between them.

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