Female Cops Throughout History
I work for the Denver Sheriff Department and we handle the jails. I’m not on the front lines, but in the Data Science Unit where I conduct research. But women are on the front lines. It’s not unusual for one female deputy to guard an open pod of 64 men all by herself. (In open pods, inmates don’t have cells but are free to wander.) She doesn’t have a gun. No deputy does. It’s too easy to get disarmed when your attention is diverted. She carries a Taser, pepper spray, and nunchaku. She relies on herself and on her radio.
Our female deputies are part of a long and proud history of women in law enforcement. The first of the female cops throughout history whom I’m aware of was the English heiress Countess Ela of Salisbury who, in 1226 C.E., became High Sheriff of Wiltshire. Another law enforcement hero, Rose Fortune, was born into slavery in 1774 in the British colony of Virginia. She escaped to Nova Scotia and began policing the docks because, well, someone had to do it. Today she’s honored as Canada’s first female cop.
Female cops throughout history were accomplished pioneers in many arenas. Ela founded an abbey. Rose was a successful entrepreneur. These were brave, brazen, intelligent, and ambitious people. But more about that later.
In the U.S., the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTM) was a driving force behind women in law enforcement. Yes, the WCTM. They did much more than spur on Prohibition. In the 19th century, many incarcerated women were mentally ill, alcoholic, or simply homeless—much like today. Before there were police matrons in the jails, male officers searched these women, supervised them. You can imagine what happened. Female prisoners were raped by jailers, arresting officers, and even male inmates. Women weren’t always kept separate from the male prisoners. They were used to clean the prisons and do other “women’s work.”
Enter the WCTM. They routinely visited women in the prisons who suffered the effects of “strong drink,” and saw firsthand the way female prisoners were exploited. The WCTM became the primary lobbying organization fighting for introduction of police matrons into jails and prisons to be a civilizing influence, and for prison reform. They also fought for women police officers, women’s right to vote, shelters for abused women and children, the eight-hour work day, federal aid for education, the pure food and drug act, and labor’s right to organize, among other things.
The idea of having women working in jails and prisons was a hard sell. The male establishment fiercely resisted. One police chief objected saying, “A woman would be spying out and publishing things that should not go outside to the public,” and “that it was not a fit place for a woman.” He said, “no pure-minded, respectable woman would take [such a job].”
The WCTM pushed and engaged the support of women’s clubs across the country. The women’s lobbying organizations identified highly qualified, willing candidates to serve as matrons. Frequently, law enforcement agencies said there was no budget for matrons. Women’s clubs and organizations stepped up and paid the salaries for police matrons out of their own pockets.
By the late 19th century, police stations and jails began to hire police matrons, and in some states, they became mandated by law.
Matrons did much more than just care for women in the jails. They did social work. They fed and clothed the homeless who sometimes took shelter in jails and police stations. They educated and counseled other women. They helped delinquent children to reform. They assisted in receiving hospitals—what we would call emergency rooms—which were often co-located with police stations. I read of one matron who helped the surgeon amputate a man’s leg.
Matrons also did detective work, interviewing female suspects and witnesses and hunting for missing persons.
Matrons represented the best of American women. They brought valor, intelligence, compassion, and dedication, often working seven days a week, sometimes sleeping in the jails. They proved their worth. The WCTM paved the way for police matrons; matrons paved the way for female cops throughout history.
There have been scores of female cops throughout history, but I’m going to mention just a few.
In 1891, Marie Owens joined the Chicago Police Department and rose to the rank of detective sergeant—the first woman in the U.S. with full arrest powers and a badge. She scored a 99 percent on the civil service exam. Marie didn’t pursue bank robbers and murderers but did “women’s work” enforcing child labor and welfare laws.
In 1908, Police Chief Williams appointed Fanny Bixby, daughter of a wealthy land baron, a special police officer for the City of Long Beach. Like most of the early women in law enforcement, she was also a reformer—a suffragist, pacifist, child advocate, and humanitarian. She patrolled the beachside resort, carrying handcuffs and a gun, and more than once got beat up for her trouble. They named a roller coaster after her.
In 1908, at the age of 48, Lola Greene Baldwin was sworn in as the first full-time, paid law enforcement officer in the City of Portland after having been an unpaid probation officer for girls. (Unpaid women in law enforcement is a theme here.) She educated “wayward” girls and found them safe housing and employment, protecting them from predators who tried to exploit them and lure them into sex work. She lobbied to fund her own position with the police department, arguing that the council had recently earmarked $6,000 for the city dog pound and shouldn’t they provide half that amount to care for Portland’s “straying daughters.” She was hired as the Superintendent of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Police Department for the Protection of Girls and held the rank of detective.
In 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells became the first female police officer in Los Angeles and an international advocate for women in police work. Because of her high profile, many have called her the first female police officer in the U.S., though Lola Baldwin preceded her by 19 years. Alice convinced the chief of police to deputize unpaid women, authorizing them to patrol the skating rinks and dance halls to protect young girls. She also founded the International Policewomen’s Association, later renamed the International Association of Women Police.
Georgia Ann Robinson
In 1912, Josephine Roche, daughter of a wealthy coal baron, became the first female police officer in Denver. She also ran for governor, was the first woman to operate a coal mine, reformed labor practices, and become assistant secretary of the treasury in the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
Lola Greene Baldwin
Georgia Ann Robinson became the first African-American female cop in the country in Los Angeles in 1916. For three years, she worked as a jail matron without pay before being officially added to the roster. She later became an investigator assigned to juvenile and homicide cases. Her law enforcement career came to an end when she tried to break up a jail fight and suffered a devastating head injury that left her permanently blind. Georgia founded a shelter for women and children and worked to desegregate Los Angeles schools.
In 1919, Emma Benson of the Los Angeles Sheriff Department became the first female deputy sheriff killed in the line of duty in the U.S. Assigned to transporting female prisoners, Emma died when her department vehicle—a Model T Ford—was struck by a trolley car. She had been returning to the jail after delivering a mental patient to a hospital in Norwalk.
There are thousands more heroes, of course, today and in history—women detectives, women patrol officers, women on SWAT teams, women jailers, women cops all over the world protecting other women and men. I thank them, and all female cops throughout history, for their service.