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Policewomen: Their First Century and the New Era

By Peter Horne, Ph.D., Professor, Mercer County Community College, Trenton, New Jersey

ver since the founding of police departments in the United States in the mid-19th century, policing has been viewed by most people as a traditionally male occupation. Men still are the overwhelming majority of police officers, and this will continue to be so in the immediate future. Women in policing now make up approximately 13-14 percent of all employees, and the women who pioneered this entry into a male-dominated profession faced many obstacles, but also experienced many rewards. Women have brought about changes in policing.

The First Policewoman: 1908 or 1910?
There is some disagreement about who was the first woman to enter a law enforcement agency as a policewoman. By the latter part of the 19th century, numerous jurisdictions employed jail and prison matrons. These women were hired to handle women and children held in correctional facilities and institutions for the insane. By the 1840s, police matrons were a common feature in most big city police departments. While not considered police officers, the appointments were significant because they constitute the first official recognition of the idea that women were necessary for the proper handling of female and juvenile offenders when they were held in custody. Matrons were the forerunners of policewomen. Even though they did not have police powers of arrest, police matrons helped pave the way for female police officers.

In 1893 an appointment to provide for the widow of a police officer was made by the mayor of Chicago. The police payroll carried Mrs. Marie Owens as a "patrolman" for 30 years until her retirement on pension. She visited courts and assisted detectives in cases involving women and children. Such an appointment was common practice around the country when most police departments offered neither pensions nor death benefits. Regardless of their specific titles, women appointed to such positions often acted as police matrons.

On April 1, 1908, Lola Baldwin, 48, was sworn in as a "female detective to perform police service" for the city of Portland, Oregon.1 She appears to be the first woman hired by a U.S. municipality to carry out regular law enforcement duties. A few years earlier, in summer of 1905, Baldwin was hired by the Portland Travelers' Aid Society to organize an effort to keep juveniles and young women safe from "moral pitfalls" as they visited or worked at the Lewis and Clark Exposition (similar to a world's fair). Civic leaders felt that the large number of single lumbermen, miners, and laborers attracted by the exposition could create undesirable influences among Portland's women. To counteract this possibility, Baldwin was put in charge of a force of social workers and given temporary quasi-police powers for the duration of the exposition (June 1 to mid-October, 1905).2 Her work to prevent vice was so effective that Lola Baldwin won the support of the mayor, city council, and police chief to make her position with the police department a permanent one. In early 1908 she passed a specialized "female detective" civil service exam and then on April 1, 1908, was hired by the police department to serve as the "Superintendent of the Women's Auxiliary to the Police Department for the Protection of Girls."3 She then began her 14-year career as the nation's first municipally paid policewoman with police powers of arrest.

It should be noted that Lola Baldwin, as well as her various municipal supporters, did not view her role as one that was the same as that of uniformed male police officers of the time. Her duties, like those of other early policewomen, emphasized crime prevention and social work rather than law enforcement. Baldwin never wore a uniform or carried a firearm, rarely flashed her badge, and seldom, if ever, made arrests. Her unit's office was not in the police station but in a local YWCA. In a 1912 magazine article on Baldwin, the author described Portland's first policewoman as a "municipal mother" who could act as a surrogate parent to protect women and girls from the moral dangers and temptations of urban life.4

The creation of a gender-specific social-work role for women in policing brought Baldwin into a police department. Two years later, in September 1910, it brought Alice Stebbins Wells to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). By a decree of the Los Angeles City Council, the LAPD appointed Mrs. Alice Wells, a 37-year-old assistant pastor and social worker with two college degrees, to the Juvenile Bureau. The council had unanimously passed an ordinance providing for the employment of "one police officer who shall be a woman."5 Her job was to handle all female and juvenile cases and to investigate social conditions that led some women and children to become involved in crime. The appointment of Wells as a policewoman attracted nationwide newspaper comment because she was an educated woman and a social worker, and she had deliberately sought and secured the opportunity to work in a police department.6

Before the appearance of Gloria Myers's excellent biography of Lola Baldwin, historians considered Alice Stebbins Wells the first policewoman in the United States, and there remains some disagreement.7 Regardless of who came first, both women, Lola Baldwin and Alice Stebbins Wells, made important and original contributions to policing and helped show the way to the many women who followed them into policing.

Policewomen in the 21st Century: Progress, but Slow Growth
It is valuable to know where policewomen are today so that their accomplishments can be appreciated and the obstacles that they still confront are noted. A 2001 survey by the National Center for Women and Policing of the nation's largest municipal, county, and state law enforcement agencies (those with more than 100 officers) found that women make up only 12.7 percent of sworn law enforcement positions.8 But this percentage is deceptively high, as only the nation's largest police agencies were surveyed, and these agencies employ the highest percentages of policewomen. The FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which surveys most of the U.S. police agencies, notes that on October 31, 2003, in more than 14,000 city, county, and state police agencies, only 76,000, or 11.4 percent, of the police officers employed were women.9 An analysis of the UCR data showed that most of the police agencies reporting to the FBI did not employ any policewomen in 2003.10 As for women's status and rank in the police departments that do employ them, a 2001 survey conducted by the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) found that in large police agencies women occupy only 9.6 percent of supervisory positions (sergeants and lieutenants) and just 7.3 percent of top command spots (captains and above).11 Policewomen are still overwhelmingly employed in the lowest tier of sworn law enforcement positions (police officer, deputy sheriff, or trooper).

The major state-level law enforcement agencies (including state police departments, highway patrols, or departments of public safety) lag behind police agencies administered by other levels of government in employing female officers. The 2003 UCR indicates that of more than 57,000 trooper nationwide, only 6.7 percent are women.12 Federal law enforcement agencies employ more women than state and local departments. As of June 2002, federal agencies such as the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service employed about 93,000 full-time personnel authorized to make arrests and carry firearms. Women accounted for 14.8 percent of these employees.13 Twenty percent of the FBI's special agents are female.

In June 2000, some 1,400 local and state law enforcement agencies with special jurisdictions or special enforcement responsibilities were operating in the United States. These special jurisdiction law enforcement agencies (including campus, airport, harbor, railroad, and mass transit police) employed more than 43,000 full-time sworn personnel who possessed police arrest powers.14 But the number of female officers working in these agencies is unknown. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that many of these agencies, particularly campus police departments, are relatively female-friendly and that the percentage of female employees in special jurisdiction police departments closely mimics the percentage of women in federal law enforcement-about 15 percent.

There are close to 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States at all levels of government, which employ nearly 800,000 full-time law enforcement officers. Since 1971, when the FBI first started tracking a gender breakdown of police officers in the UCR, the annual rate of gain has been less than half of 1 percent per year. Factoring that into the somewhat dated statistics regarding policewomen, we can say there are a little more than 100,000 female police officers in the United States. And they are not just in the lowest ranks anymore. In a comprehensive book, author and former police captain Dorothy Schulz concludes that women make up slightly more than 1 percent (about 200 or so) of this nation's police chiefs and sheriffs.15 Women serve as police chiefs in several major cities, and women have been sheriffs as well as heads of state police organizations. Two federal law enforcement agencies (the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Park Police) have also been led by women. In addition a number of special-jurisdiction law enforcement agencies are currently headed by women or have been in recent years.

Clearly, women in policing have made progress over the years. In 1971 women made up only 1.4 percent of all police officers. Today policewomen account for more than 13 percent of police officers, and they serve in all types and sizes of police agencies, in all ranks, in all kinds of work assignments, and in all parts of the country. Nevertheless, women remain underrepresented in all ranks in policing and there are still serious obstacles to overcome if policewomen are to move beyond their statistically marginal status.

Promoting Progress for Women in Policing
In 1998, to promote progress of women in policing, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) created an ad hoc committee on women in policing. The committee, composed of female law enforcement executives throughout the United States, was directed to examine the role of women in policing and to report its findings to the IACP Board of Officers. The study, The Future of Women in Policing: Mandates for Action, was published in November 1998. The survey of 800 IACP members revealed or confirmed critical information regarding the status and future of women in policing.

The IACP survey reported results similar to those of the survey conducted by the NCWP: policewomen are both underused and undervalued in law enforcement. While confirming that the number of women in policing is growing and progressing through the ranks, it also revealed the following:

  • There are few women in policing, compared to their male counterparts.

  • Female officers still face bias from male officers.

  • Many departments lack strategies for recruiting women.

  • Female officers may face gender discrimination and a so-called "brass ceiling" that inhibits promotion.

  • Sexual harassment still occurs in many departments.

  • There are few mentoring programs for female officers.16

Women Make Valuable Contributions to Community Policing
As the 1998 IACP report noted and the current statistics confirm, significant barriers still confront women in policing. Yet, despite the pessimistic views of some regarding the future of policewomen, there is much to be optimistic about during these early years of the 21st century. A number of legal and cultural obstacles to women in policing have been removed. There are signs that things are beginning to improve, and that women considering a career in law enforcement today may not have to experience all the hardships that confronted their predecessors.17

Community policing was the buzzword in police circles during the 1990s. Many departments around the country became community policing departments or adopted parts of community policing. While police administrators and others have different definitions of the term, community policing is essentially a department-wide philosophy and management approach that promotes community, government, and police partnerships and proactive problem solving to address crime, fear of crime, social and physical disorder, and quality of life. It shifts the focus of police work from handling random calls to solving ongoing community problems.18

Even in this post-September 11 era, there are a number of indications that community policing will survive in the 21st century, and that it is more than a passing fad. The growing emphasis on community policing demands police officers with problem-solving and communication skills that enable them to interact effectively with all segments of the public. Several researchers have noted that women tend to be effective communicators, and they also are good at solving problems. Hiring policewomen (or more policewomen), retaining them, and promoting them will help police departments succeed in community policing.

Can Policewomen Improve Police Response to Female Victims?
One segment of the community that has received increased attention from the police is female victims of violence. Although the specific numbers vary widely, it is safe to conclude that violence against women (including domestic violence and rape) is a significant problem in the United States. Nationwide, an estimated 2 million women are severely assaulted by male partners each year. Some 1,500 of them die. The police have estimated that more than 40 percent of all calls for police service are in some way related to domestic violence.19

Domestic violence is probably the most common form of violence today. It is important to note that most violent crimes against women go unreported. In the past, it has been estimated that less than 10 percent of domestic violence incidents were reported to the police. Female victims of domestic violence are sometimes reluctant to call the police because they believe that officers will not help or that the officers will side with the male perpetrator of the violence.

It has been suggested that increasing the number of policewomen handling complaints of domestic violence would dramatically enhance a police department's ability to respond effectively to violence against women.20 Studies have shown that female police officers believed more strongly (than male officers) in the need to show sympathy and understanding to successfully handle domestic disputes. A 1985 study portrayed policewomen as being more involved in domestic violence calls and more convinced (than male officers) of the importance of responding to family fights as a crucial police duty.21 Increasing the number of women in policing at all ranks and in all operational capacities would improve the handling of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. It would also encourage female victims of violence to report such incidents to the police because they will be more confident that their pleas for help will be treated seriously.

Policewomen Are Less Likely to Use Excessive Force
Regarding violence, it is essential to note that numerous studies have shown that policewomen rely on a policing style that uses less physical force and is less confrontational than that used by many policemen. Policewomen are much less likely to use excessive violence or police brutality while satisfactorily performing their jobs. In the aftermath of the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the Independent Commission [Christopher Commission] on the Los Angeles Police Department issued a report that included the following: "Female officers utilize a style of policing that minimizes the use of excessive force. Data examined by the Commission indicate that LAPD female officers are involved in use of excessive force at rates substantially below those of male officers."22 It concluded that pervasive gender bias contributed substantially to excessive-force problems on the LAPD.

Police agencies around the country have lost lawsuits often involving large sums of money to settle excessive force suits brought by citizens, yet a number of reports in the past 25 years in the United States and abroad show that the less confrontational approach to policing used by the majority of female officers and some male officers results in more effective law enforcement and less use of force. Police departments can substantially reduce their exposure to excessive force lawsuits if more women are employed as police officers and used in all facets of policing and in all ranks as well.

The Mass Media and Policewomen
The mass media has put a positive spin on the portrayal of policewomen in the last 15 years or so. Today the print media does not run the sensational front-page stories about the first policewoman hired or promoted. Articles about women in policing are more matter-of-fact or routine these days.

Early television serials about female police officers in the 1970s, Get Christie Love and Police Woman, focused on female undercover and plainclothes officers. But starting with Cagney and Lacey in the mid-1980s and continuing with such shows as Hill Street Blues, NYPDBlue, ThirdWatch, Law and Order: SVU, and the various CSI shows, female detectives and uniformed officers are portrayed as competent, valuable members of the police force, and other characters treat their presence as unexceptional. The ascendance of women in police dramas is unequivocal and pretty much television-wide. It has occurred in movies as well. The media attention has helped promote favorable attitudes toward female officers among the general public, prospective police candidates, and even police officers themselves.

Changing Attitudes
Attitudes concerning policewomen have changed for the better, and the media has contributed to this. It has been found that there is a growing acceptance by the public for females in the law enforcement role. Especially noteworthy is that most people are no longer skeptical of women's ability to handle violent situations.23

Today, more than two-thirds of male criminal justice students are supportive of female officers overall and, of course, a good number of these students will be going onto careers in policing where they may well be working with female colleagues.24 It is now not uncommon for male police officers to acknowledge that women make good cops. And a number of larger and midsize police agencies are actively recruiting, employing, and promoting more women.

Policewomen Find Networking and Support in Associations
A number of state, regional, national, and international associations have emerged to give support to female officers and give an organized voice to the interests of policewomen. The oldest national association is the International Association of Women Police (IAWP). This association was formed in 1956 as a continuation of the International Association of Policewomen (IAP), which was founded in 1915 by Alice Wells and others and discontinued during the Depression in 1932. Today it has approximately3,000 members.

Three other organizations promoting women in policing arose in the 1990s. The National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE), started in 1995, has some 400 voting members at the rank of lieutenant or above in their respective departments. The National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP), also organized in 1995, has several hundred members. The NCWP produces and disseminates research on issues relevant to women in law enforcement. A fourth national association for U.S. policewomen, Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE), was reorganized and renamed as WIFLE in June 1999. It also has several hundred members.

These organizations provide information, guidance, and support to female officers and those considering entering the profession. These four associations have sought to educate police administrators, politicians, the media, and the public about the benefits of increasing the number of women in policing.

Forcing Change
Female candidates and officers continue to file discrimination lawsuits, and they are forcing changes in police agencies. These lawsuits sometimes result in court-ordered consent decrees that require agencies to change their policies. A consent decree is an agreement between parties (instead of a final decision by a judge) that binds a police department to a particular course of action in regard to hiring and promoting women in law enforcement. Female officers have filed gender discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits as well, and a majority of these have been settled in favor of the complainant (the policewoman).25 But many of the women who file these suits face retaliation and even ostracism from their police departments. In an ideal world these lawsuits would not be necessary, but the women who challenge the system today are forcing change that will ultimately benefit the women (and men) who enter policing tomorrow.

The history of women in policing is nearing the time when there will be no more "firsts." Many police agencies have already experienced the first woman hired, the first woman to be promoted to whatever rank, the first woman on the SWAT team, the first woman commander, and so on. Unfortunately, the first women in these cases have often experienced added scrutiny as they did their jobs. They paid a price for opening up doors for future women to pass through. Some of these female pioneers advanced in policing while others did not survive in their careers. But they all helped break down barriers in large and small law enforcement agencies at all levels of government.26

It would be very easy for someone to be pessimistic about the future of women in policing. The percentage of policewomen is still relatively small and the rate of increase of policewomen has grown at a snail's pace since 1971. Unfortunately, as the NCWP points out, court-ordered plans still remain necessary to get some police agencies to implement policies to recruit, promote, and retain women.27 Two major barriers still exist in many police departments: sexual harassment and poor maternity leave policies.

The Next Generation
Women have made steady, albeit modest, strides in law enforcement since the 1970s. As of the end of 2002, an estimated 17 percent of recruits who completed police academy training (throughout the nation's police academies) were female.28 Many police agencies have taken action to eliminate or reduce employment barriers and improve working conditions.

The IACP has gone on record stating that it "believes it is essential to strengthen the position of women in policing-their numbers, their professional development, their progress to positions of leadership, and their contribution to the public service and safety."29

It is also noteworthy that Chief MaryAnn Viverette's presidency of the IACP in 2005-2006 is occurring as policewomen close out their first century in U.S. policing. It is interesting that this is occurring while the first generation of women officers in the modern era (started in 1972) is retiring and the second generation is coming on board police agencies. The female baby-boomer officers who were hired by police agencies in the 1970s and early 1980s now have more than 25 years of service and either have retired or will be retiring in the next few years. In case there are still lingering doubts in anyone's mind, the efforts of these women have improved law enforcement and paved the way for even greater contributions by the next generation of women police officers. ■

1 Gloria Myers, A Municipal Mother: Portland's Lola Greene Baldwin, America's First Policewoman (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1995), 22.
2 Dorothy Moses Schulz, From Social Worker to Crimefighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1995), 22.
3 Myers, A Municipal Mother, 22.
4 Myers, A Municipal Mother, 23.
5 Janis Appier, Policing Women: The Sexual Politics of Law Enforcement and the LAPD (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 10.
6 Peter Horne, Women in Law Enforcement,
2nd ed. (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas,
1980), 28.
7 Myers, A Municipal Mother, 171-172.
8 National Center for Women and Policing, Equality Denied: The Status of Women in Policing, 2001 (Los Angeles: April 2002), 4.
9 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2003 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), 370.
10 FBI, telephone communication, January14, 2005.
11 National Center, Equality Denied, 7.
12 FBI, Crime in the United States, 2003, 372-373.
13 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Law Enforcement Officers, 2002, by Brian Reaves and Lynn Bauer, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, August 2003), 7.
14 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2000, by Brian Reaves and Matthew Hickman (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, October 2002), 12.
15 Dorothy Moses Schulz, Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Women Police Chiefs and Their Paths to the Top (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2004), 192.
16 International Association of Chiefs of Police, The Future of Women in Policing: Mandates for Action (Alexandria, Virginia: November 1998), ii.
17 P. Harrington and K. Lonsway, "Current Barriers and Future Promise for Women in Policing," The Criminal Justice System and Women, 3rd ed., edited by B. Price and N. Sokoloff (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 507.
18 Peter Horne, "Not Just Old Wine in New Bottles," Police Chief 58 (May 1991): 24.
19 The Quincy (Massachusetts) Court Model Domestic Abuse Program Manual, unpublished manuscript, 6.
20 Women's Advisory Council to the Los Angeles Police Commission, A Blueprint for Implementing Gender Equity in the Los Angeles Police Department (Los Angeles: October 1993), 59-60.
21 R. Homant and D. Kennedy, "Police Perceptions of Spouse Abuse: A Comparison of Male and Female Officers," Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 13, No. 1 (1985): 42-43.
22 Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, "Summary of Report," unpublished manuscript (1991): 3.
23 J. Dempsey and L. Forst, An Introduction to Policing, 3rd ed. (Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 331.
24 Dempsey and Forst, An Introduction to Policing, 336.
25 IACP, The Future of Women in Policing, 13, 16.
26 Harrington and Lonsway, "Current Barriers and Future Promise for Women in Policing," 507-508.
27 National Center for Women and Policing, Under Scrutiny: The Effect of Consent Decrees on the Representation of Women in Sworn Law Enforcement (Los Angeles: Spring 2003), 3, 7-8.
28 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, State and Local Law Enforcement Training Academies, 2002, by Matthew Hickman (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 2005), 8.
29 IACP, The Future of Women in Policing, ii.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 9, September 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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