In the early days of law enforcement in America, women didn’t receive the opportunity to become police officers, primarily due to cultural and societal norms that relegated women to a domestic sphere, not seeing them as capable of fulfilling law enforcement duties. However, a few brave women defied expectations and became the first policewomen in the United States.
Find the Firsts tells their stories and explores why law enforcement began accepting women into its ranks.
- In 1845, the American Female Reform Society convinced the New York City Police Department to let Flora Foster look after the female and juvenile criminals in their custody.
- The Chicago Police Department hired Marie Owens in 1891. She received the title of Detective Sargent and had the authority to make arrests.
- On April 1, 1908, 48-year-old Lola Greene Baldwin became the first woman hired under U.S. civil service rules as a full-time paid law enforcement officer.
- Alice Stebbins Wells designed, created, and wore the first female police uniform, making Wells the first uniformed policewoman. However, Wells’ legacy is her continued advocacy for women in law enforcement.
Four history-making women
Who was the first woman police officer in the United States? The answer to this question isn’t so straightforward. Depending on how you define “police officer,” a few women could claim the title. We’ll focus on the stories of four women: Flora Foster, Marie Owens, Lola Baldwin, and Alice Stebbins Wells.
Flora Foster was born in Ireland in 1806 and came to America as a child. Later, her family settled in New York. In 1845, the American Female Reform Society convinced the New York City Police Department to let Foster look after the female and juvenile criminals in their custody. She later became known as Matron Foster.
Foster served an astounding 36 years as a police matron. She died from acute pneumonia on Tuesday, February 14, 1882. She was 75 years old.
The Britannica Dictionary defines a police officer as a “member of the police.” Going by that definition makes Flora Foster the first recorded female police officer in the United States.
Marie Connelly Owens was born in 1853 and grew up in Ottowa, Canada. She and her husband, Thomas, moved to Chicago, Illinois, when she was in her twenties. Sadly, in February 1888, Thomas died of typhoid, leaving Marie with five children to raise.
In 1889, Owens started working as a factory inspector for the City Health Department where she enforced child labor and education laws. Due to rising pressure for police officers to enforce labor laws and Owen’s knowledge of said laws, the Chicago Police Department hired Owens in 1891. Consequently, she received the title of Detective Sargent and had the authority to make arrests.
Her work positively affected thousands of children. She established schools inside department stores and convinced employers to shorten children’s workdays.
Marie Owens passed away in 1927 at the age of 74.
Another definition in the Britannica Dictionary defines a police officer as “a person whose job is to enforce laws, investigate crimes, and make arrests.” By this definition, Marie Owens would be the first recorded female police officer in the United States.
On April 1, 1908, 48-year-old Lola Greene Baldwin became the first woman hired under U.S. civil service rules as a full-time paid law enforcement officer. Leading up to this appointment in Portland, Oregon, Baldwin lived in different states due to her husband’s work, and she always found a way to work with disadvantaged women and children.
In 1907, Baldwin requested Portland’s Mayor Harry Lane and the Portland City Council fund her work in caring for the welfare of young women and girls. She mentioned the council had recently reserved $6,000 for the city dog pound, and she was asking to care for Portland’s lost daughters for half that annual amount. The council approved the request on the condition that she pass the civil service exam for police work.
By the time she retired in 1922, she had accomplished the following:
- Supervised the Portland Police Department Women’s Protective Division
- Obtained federal funds for the Cedars Venereal Detention Facility for Women
- Investigated Immigration Bureau cases involving interstate prostitution
After she retired from the police force, Baldwin served on the Oregon Parole Board and the National Board of Prisons and Prison Labor.
Baldwin died in 1957 at the age of 97.
Alice Stebbins Wells
Alice Stebbins Wells was born in 1873 and became one of the first female law enforcement officers in the United States.
Wells started as a pastor, where she realized that communities would be safer if women were on the police force. She petitioned for a law in Los Angeles permitting women to be officers. In 1910, the LAPD hired Wells as a policewoman, giving her a regular beat.
Later, Wells founded the International Policewomen’s Association, traveling all over the country to promote hiring more women for law enforcement.
There were no uniforms for female officers at the time. So, Wells designed, created, and wore the first female police uniform, making Wells the first uniformed policewoman. However, Wells’ legacy is her continued advocacy for women in law enforcement.
Wells retired from the Los Angeles Police Department in 1940 and died in 1957 at 84. All the senior officers in the police department attended her funeral, and her honor guard comprised ten women.
Bergen County Sheriff Robert Heath appointed Constance Kopp as his deputy in 1915, making her the first appointed woman sheriff in the United States.
Georgia Ann Robinson was the first African-American woman appointed police chief in the United States.
Did you enjoy learning about the first policewomen in the United States?
These brave women’s stories helped pave the way for more women to enter law enforcement. Today, many women serve as police officers, detectives, and sheriffs across the United States thanks to these pioneers who broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations.
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