Woman In Law Enforcement

Women have had a role in American law enforcement for more than 150 years, with responsibilities expanding to more active, decision- and policy-making positions over time. Yet the field still favors men by a large percentage.

Challenges and Benefits of Woman In Law Enforcement

Women who choose law enforcement careers enter a male-centric workplace that may make juggling a family and a career difficult due to the round-the-clock nature of the job. Some aspects of policing can be physically demanding. Psychological stress includes high-pressure situations, the scrutiny of being in the public spotlight, and feeling like an example by which all women succeed or fail. Due to hiring challenges including preferences for military veterans, a coworker or partner may be suffering from PTSD or have a substance abuse issue. In addition, police departments depend on taxpayer-funded budgets, affecting job security as the priorities of schools, roads, public safety, and other public services are openly debated every year.

Female officers may benefit from an effort to balance law enforcement teams, including faster promotions. The field is opening up to many new career paths as well, including computer forensics, psychology, prosecutor, and other specialized applications.


Early history of policewomen

The first women associated with American policing were prison matrons around 1850. This position was created when police began arresting and detaining women with more regularity. Matrons were necessary because it was frowned upon for a male sheriff or law enforcement officer to search a female prisoner or to otherwise handle her, such as attaching handcuffs or shackles. Matrons were often called upon to deal with a female prisoner’s children until permanent care could be arranged.

Women’s rights to own property and have a job evolved slowly in the 1800s. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1839 allowed a woman to keep ownership of property she purchased or inherited, even if married. Prior to the enactment of these laws, the U.S. generally followed British Common Law that allowed for coverture, which made them subservient to husbands or fathers. In the aftermath of the deadly Civil War many women had to work outside the home to support their families and by the 1880s women flocked to textile mills as hourly workers at looms and sewing machines.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others pushed for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote, which activated the entire gender’s move closer to independence and autonomy. With this freedom came more opportunity to be arrested and jailed, at times for exercising the right to free speech.

Indiana created the first women’s prison in 1873. Prior to that women were held in men’s prisons. Sara Smith was the first superintendent of that prison. By 1927 there was a federal prison for women in West Virginia, further expanding women’s roles in law enforcement.

Policewomen on the beat

Chicago hired a female police officer, Marie Owens, in 1891 to specifically handle child labor law enforcement. In 1905, Lola Baldwin was hired by the Portland, Oregon police to work at the Lewis and Clark Exposition but continued her career long afterward as head of the city’s Department of Public Safety and Protection for Young Girls and Women.

In 1910 Alice Stebbin Wells was among the first known policewoman in the country who had a regular patrol “beat” in Los Angeles rather than a matron-type position. She founded the International Policewomen’s Association and lobbied for more positions for women interested in police work.

Some of Stebbin Wells’ police work was centered on morality: things like the safety of women and children around pool halls, skating rinks, and dancehalls, as well as the appropriateness of signs and billboards. In 1917 she and Minnie Barton, the first known female parole officer (who worked without pay), teamed up to create a halfway house for women released from prison. Over time Stebbin Wells also lectured and addressed other state assemblies to advocate for women in police work. By 1918 there were female police representatives from more than 14 states at her International Policewomen’s Association conference and a Los Angeles-area college began offering policing classes to women at her behest.

By 1912, New York City had a female police detective, and just a few years later there was a female precinct with 20 patrolwomen assigned to it. The first female deputy sheriff in New York state was named in 1923.

War’s effect on policewomen

During World War I women filled positions vacated by men in many fields: in munitions factories, as teachers, and as police officers. The employment rate swelled from about 23 percent in 1914 to about 40 percent by 1918. A new push for moral standards, reflected in the alcohol Prohibition laws, created more positions for female officers, who patrolled in search of prostitutes and other infringements of public morality.

The mobilization of men to fight in WWII created another opportunity for women to pursue law enforcement careers. Again, women were called in to fill out jobs vacated by men on active duty, but they also signed up by thousands to enter the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). This training and experience gave women in the service many of the same responsibilities as their male counterparts in civilian life, creating an expectation that it could be continued after the war. Further, police work is quasi-military in the uniforms, expectations for procedure, and chain of command.

Legislation that affected women in police careers

women in law inforcement

One of the last barriers for women was the federal Equal Employment Act of 1965 that forbade discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or religion. Public offices such as police departments were expected to uphold that law moreso than private industry as they are taxpayer funded, but the Revenue Sharing Act and Crime Control Act underscored the importance of recruiting, hiring, and advancing female law enforcement officers by allowing funding to be withheld from departments that fell short.

The early 1970s saw a strengthening of the Civil Rights Act in prohibiting gender discrimination in public agencies, the first female F.B.I. officers, and a slew of girl cop television shows that helped dispel the myth that women couldn’t be police officers. Yet the numbers didn’t change dramatically, as just two percent of police were female. This situation prompted the International Association of Chiefs of Police to study barriers to women joining and advancing in law enforcement careers – in 1995.

By 2017 women made up a little more than 25 percent of all law enforcement employees but only 12.5 percent of police officers (about 73,000 total). This despite the 1994 Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that called for 100,000 new police officers and a “get tough” stance on crime. There are approximately 300 female chiefs of police across the country.