Authored by Julie Bell
March is National Women’s History Month and at the National Law Enforcement Museum, we are celebrating by looking at the history of women in law enforcement professions.
Before the 1870s, law enforcement was an exclusively male profession. As the Women’s Movement made steady gains throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, women gradually entered the profession in limited roles. The earliest non-clerical position for women in law enforcement was that of the Police Matron. Matrons were hired by local police departments and, as the name suggests, were usually middle-aged women. Gender stereotypes about women’s work influenced their responsibilities in the police department. Matrons worked in prisons and local jails as a combination of correctional officer and social worker. A matron’s responsibilities often included caring for women and children held in jails and prisons, counseling female prisoners, keeping records, serving food, and administering first aid. Women at the time were considered naturally suited to the role of caregiver and as a source of moral authority.
Louise Paine, a Minneapolis (MN) police matron, recorded the common charges that women and children in her charge received in her annual report in 1889. “103 were arrested for drunkenness, 79 for being found in houses of ill-fame, 70 charged with disorderly conduct…11 insane women and 94 lost children.”
By the turn of the century, women’s leaders had started to advocate for women to become sworn police officers and take the same responsibilities of male police officers. Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated, “there ought to be fifty women police on the New York city force… to patrol the streets at night, to look after women going home from work or theaters.”
National Law Enforcement Museum Collection, 2008.33.1
Those who supported the idea of policewomen argued that females had skills that male officers often lacked. For example, police women were thought to be more effective in dealing with female criminals because they could not use their “feminine charms” on the police women. Police women were also often deployed to reduce shoplifting, a crime thought of as almost exclusively committed by women. The motherly image of a middle-aged police woman was also though to curb juvenile delinquency. The Women’s Bureau of the New York (NY) Police Department had an all-female squad to investigate abortions in a time when in was illegal in every state. This limited role for policewomen was still dependent on the gender stereotypes of women as nurturing, strict, and morally upright.
By the dawn of Second Wave feminism in the 1960s, policewomen were often required to be hired by department quotas. They wore police uniforms, but they were often impractical including skirts, heals, and duty purses instead of belts. The Museum’s History Time Capsules exhibit contains artifacts from Betty Blankenship and Elizabeth Coffal, the first women patrol officers in Indianapolis when they joined the force in 1967. (seen below).
National Law Enforcement Museum Collection, 2011.41.1
By the early 1970s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was expanded to include public agencies and outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex. The same year, the FBI appointed its first two female agents after the death of its longtime director. J. Edgar Hoover had considered the FBI’s responsibilities “too taxing, too physically demanding, too complicated and serious for women.”
By the mid-1980s, women started earning leadership roles as chiefs of police. Today, women make up about 12% of law enforcement officers in the country and still work in a largely male-dominated field. Recruitment of female officers continues to be a challenge for many departments. We hope that the Museum can be a place for young people, especially girls, to learn more about the law enforcement profession. Our exhibits feature stories of countless women working in local, state, and federal law enforcement departments and in a wide variety of roles ranging from patrol officers, to K-9 officers and Crime Scene Investigators. Our team of volunteers includes many current and retired female officers who speak about their experiences at our public programs and youth groups. We hope you can make a visit to the National Law Enforcement Museum part of your Women’s History Month celebration!
Julie Bell is a former high school history teacher and manages the Museum’s school and scout programs. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in teaching (Secondary Social Studies) from the University of Virginia.