Catherine O’Neill, a social worker turned political activist and advocate for refugee women who co-founded the watchdog group now called the Women’s Refugee Commission, died of cancer Wednesday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. She was 70.
Her death was confirmed by her husband, author Richard Reeves.
O’Neill started the organization originally called the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children with actress Liv Ullmann and others in 1989, after observing conditions in refugee camps in Pakistan and other hot spots as a board member of the humanitarian International Rescue Committee.
O’Neill “was going to different refugee centers and seeing women and children not getting the services they needed,” such as access to food and reproductive healthcare, said Diana Quick, communications director for the New York group, which conducts research and advises international agencies, governments and other organizations. “Catherine had a passion for women’s and children’s rights and making sure women were involved in discussions about what services they needed and how they are provided.”
She also was well known in local Democratic Party circles for her two hard-fought races to represent Los Angeles’ Westside in the state Senate.
The first race, to represent what was then the 25th Senate District that stretched from Malibu to Palos Verdes, took place in 1972, when few women were involved in elective politics, much less an Irish Catholic mother of two who supported abortion rights. Her position on abortion brought the wrath of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which distributed a pastoral letter condemning her candidacy that was read from the pulpits of Catholic churches in her district.
O’Neill, who had hoped to become the first woman in the state Senate, lost by a single percentage point to the Republican incumbent, Robert S. Stevens. (The all-male Senate was integrated five years later, in 1977, by Rose Ann Vuich, a conservative Democrat from the Central Valley.) Two years later, in 1974, she sought the Democratic nomination for secretary of state as an advocate of campaign finance reform, finishing a strong third in the contest won by March Fong Eu.
In 1992, after a decade away from Southern California to work in public affairs for the International Monetary Fund in Washington and the International Herald Tribune in Paris, O’Neill plunged back into L.A. politics, leading a successful campaign to reverse a Los Angeles County Transportation Commission decision awarding a contract for Metro Green Line cars to a Japanese company instead of an American firm.
Later that year, she made her third bid for public office, running in a reconfigured 23rd Senate District, which encompassed much of the same territory as the old 25th. Again, she was unsuccessful, losing in the Democratic primary to then-Assemblyman Tom Hayden, who went on to win the seat.
“She ran for office because she wanted to get things done,” said Kathleen Brown Rice, the former California state treasurer and sister of Gov. Jerry Brown, who knew O’Neill for more than 40 years. “It wasn’t about the power. Something would tick her off.”
The daughter of poor Irish immigrants, O’Neill was born Catherine Vesey in New York City on July 19, 1942. She earned a degree in history at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1962 before marrying attorney Brian O’Neill and moving to Los Angeles in 1965. They had two children before divorcing in 1978.
O’Neill, who also had a master’s in social welfare from Howard University and a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, held a variety of jobs over the years, including social worker, co-owner of a lawn furniture company and editorial director of Los Angeles radio station KFWB-AM. She was director of the United Nations’ Washington offices from 1999 until her retirement in 2005.
With Reeves, whom she married in 1979, she co-wrote “Family Travels: Around the World in 30 or So Days,” an often humorous account of a trip through 16 countries with their children, who then ranged in age from 10 to 33.
She is survived by Reeves, along with their daughter, Fiona; two sons from her first marriage, Colin and Conor O’Neill; two stepchildren, Cynthia Reeves and Jeffrey Reeves; a sister, Mary Ann Garvey; and a granddaughter.
A memorial service will be announced later.