“Who’s on First?” Once and For All, Who Was the First Policewoman in the United States?

For younger readers, “Who’s on First” was a hilarious baseball comedy routine made famous by Abbott and Costello during their vaudeville days in the 1930s and remained popular into the 1970s. Not so comical is the continuing disagreement concerning who was the first policewoman in the United States. To read the differences, one would assume there is a lot riding on the outcome. And perhaps there is. If history has a persona, it surely would not allow loose ends; if the facts are there, history would ensure the question would be answered—hard and fast. Time to tie loose ends.

By the 1840s, women were becoming involved with local law enforcement agencies. Their primary duties included the care of female prisoners and young children. They were not sworn officers nor did they have arrest powers. Their appointment was significant because they constituted the first official recognition of the idea that women were necessary for the proper handling of female and juvenile offenders when in police custody.

Matron Lucy Gray, the first female to work on the LAPD, on the right, with her daughter, Mrs. Aletha Gilbert, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Matron Lucy Gray, the first female to work on the LAPD, on the right, with her daughter, Mrs. Aletha Gilbert, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Just prior to the dawn of the 20th century, the duties of early female officers were more of a social worker. None of these women had the same status as the men working as police officers. However, these women did endeavor to open the door of opportunity for other women to join the ranks for a career in law enforcement. Without question, they were very successful in laying the groundwork for today’s women working side-by-side with their male counterparts.

The problematic ingredient to the issue of who was the first policewoman in the country is defining what constitutes being a sworn female police officer. I suggest she must meet three distinct criteria: She must be appointed to a law enforcement organization, be provided the department’s badge or shield and have the corresponding powers of arrest. Now the controversy. Should she be identified as a policewoman no matter her specific assignment within the organization? If she just worked one narrowly defined assignment, should she be given the title of policewoman? I would argue she should as long as she meets all the other criteria. It is no different today, with some officers going through their entire career working just one or two assignments.

When I was in the police academy and listened to the instructor discuss the history of the Los Angeles Police Department, (and later when I taught the subject), LAPD’s Alice Stebbins Wells was always proclaimed to be the first policewoman in the United States. No instructor cited any documentation to the effect; it was just put out there—and has been for generations. But today, modern research techniques have challenged earlier assumptions. Facts that were obscure and buried in the massive depths of history can now be resurrected.

Armed with these newly discovered specifics, one can, with near certainty, fill a void in this historical caveat. Now, I realize that dates, as they relate to history, are boring, but bear with me—they are important in this discussion. Let’s look at the contenders for Who’s on First—in chronological order.

Marie Owens, Chicago PD

Marie Owens, Chicago PD

1891: Marie Owens, Chicago Police Department
The first date, which was just recently uncovered and lends itself to our established criteria, is in 1891—19 years before women were even given the right to vote. Contemporary research brought to light the exploits of Mrs. Marie Owens of Chicago. A refugee from the Irish Famine, Owens moved to Chicago with her husband. But her spouse died in 1888 of typhoid fever. Left with five children to raise, the tall, solidly built women with flowing black hair found a job with the Chicago Health Department working as the lead factory inspector, tasked with enforcing child-labor laws.

Many children at the time, some as young as 7, were subjected to work long hours and paid only pennies a day, slaving in ghoulish working environments. Public outrage was growing and politicians were forced to take action. Consequently, the city hired female inspectors to investigate and cite violators. Not standing by ideally, the business owners soon out-flanked the inspectors by demanding a search warrant before allowing Owens and her staff to enter. Since the inspectors were without powers of arrest, they were hampered in their investigations.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) soon became involved and, in a bold move, had the foresight to hire Marie Owens. She was given powers of arrest, the title of detective sergeant and a police star. But her duties were limited to just child labor law violations.
Regardless, she became well known through the press, which followed many of her exploits. Sergeant Owens left little doubt as to her perceived position in the police department:

When the work first began, a woman wearing a police sergeant’s star was a novelty. Manufacturers, in some cases, were not inclined to admit me to their work shops. But, armed with the strong arm of the law and the will to do good, I soon found that, in most cases, the merchants met me half-way and rendered me great assistance.

The owners of the big plants were not the only ones to take notice of a woman wearing a badge. Owen’s supervisor summed up her capabilities: “Give me men like she is a woman and we will have the model detective bureau of the whole world.” Owens retired in 1923 after 32 years with the Chicago Police Department. Her parting words were:
“In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective.”

Lola Baldwin, Portland PD, Oregon

Lola Baldwin, Portland PD, Oregon

1908: Lola Baldwin, Portland (Oregon) Police Department
The second woman in our three-officer race for being credited with being the first woman cop is Lola Baldwin of Portland, Oregon. On April 1, 1908, Baldwin was sworn in as a “female detective to perform police service” for the city of Portland. Her background included working for the Portland Travelers’ Aid Society to ensure that juveniles and young women did not fall into “moral pitfalls” as they worked at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905. The exposition was like a World’s Fair and brought in single lumbermen, laborers and miners who might influence the young people of Portland.

To counter this onslaught, city hall, along with the police chief, formed a force of social workers, headed by Baldwin, who were given temporary quasi-police powers for the length of the exposition. Baldwin and her squad of women were so successful that the same politicians made her position a permanent one. Consequently, in 1908, Baldwin was hired by the Portland Police Department to serve as the “Superintendent of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Police Department for the Protection of Girls.” Thus began her 14-year law enforcement career with a badge and powers of arrest.

Lola Baldwin never thought of her position as one that was the same as that of the uniformed men of the department. Her duties emphasized crime prevention and social work rather than law enforcement. She did not carry a gun or wear a uniform. Her office was not in police headquarters, but at the local YMCA.

Alice Stebbins Wells, LAPD

Alice Stebbins Wells, LAPD

1910: Alice Stebbins Wells, Los Angeles Police Department
Two years later in 1910, 37-year-old Alice Stebbins Wells was a determined woman who took notice of the lack of women in law enforcement. She was a seasoned social worker who wanted to take her profession to the police department. Wells was not waiting to be asked to join the LAPD; she took her case in front of the city council.

She argued that society was changing and there was a definitive need for a women’s presence on the police department. She reasoned that children and abused and sexually assaulted women needed a female police officer to confide in; most women, she pointed out, were extremely uncomfortable in reporting crimes to male officers. The city council agreed, and a transformation took place on LAPD. On September 12, 1910, Wells was designated as the nation’s first female policewoman with arrest powers. The Herald ran a headline of the freshly badged “officeress:”

“NEW POLICE OFFICER ASSUMES HER DUTIES-‘PATROLMAN’ WELLS GIVEN STAR.”
If you happen to be prowling around the streets late at night in a suspicious manner and are arrested by a women who informs you in a gentle voice she is an officer of the law and then flashes a star on you to make you believe it don’t be alarmed or ask any questions, but give an explanation, for it will be Alice Stebbins Wells, the only woman on the department of Los Angeles.

Unlike the two other earlier pioneers mentioned, Wells worked a foot beat with a senior juvenile officer. The male officer showed her “the different penny arcades, skating rinks, dance halls, picture theaters and other places frequented by minors.” Once Wells had her assignment, the department promptly issued a directive:

No young girl can be questioned by a male officer. Such work is delegated solely to policewomen, who, by their womanly sympathy and intuition, are able to gain the confidence of their younger sisters.

Wells went on to found the International Association of Police Women and later the Women Peace Officers Association of California. Alice Wells was appointed the department’s historian and curator in 1934. She presented her first policewoman’s uniform to the archives. After 30 years of service, she retired in 1940 and died in 1957.

There you have it, three pioneering women who, no matter who was first, laid the foundation for the women officers of today. Arguments can be made for each woman. Rather than proclaim my choice now, I want to open it up to an Internet vote. Encourage your friends to vote and let’s see, according to you, Who’s on First. I will post the results soon.

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