Women on the Force
In 1913, Chicago’s Police Department welcomed its first cohort of female officers. Ten in all, they were a dynamic and pioneering group. Mayor Carter Harrison was a strong advocate for bringing women onto the force, taking the stance, which was widely held, that only women police officers were capable of taming the delinquent children of Chicago. Dealing with children was “women’s work,” and the sensitivity they would bring to managing child offenders would be of great service to society. Policewomen would uphold the moral character of the city.
Policewomen Agnes Walsh (from left), Anna Loucks, Theresa Johnson, Anna Sheridan, Lulu Burt, Mabel Rockwell, and Miss Clara B. Olsen.
The starting salary of a policewoman in 1913 was $75 a month, and each officer was assigned an area to patrol—often a beach, park, bus terminal, railroad station, or dancehall. Their duties included protecting girls from unsavory types who might lure them into danger and arresting girls for wearing questionable swimming costumes at the local beaches. Yes, a girl with a swimsuit whose neckline went a little too low could be arrested!
Leading up to their hire, suffragists debated what kind of women would be suitable for the job, what they would wear, and if these women would be armed when on duty. The right type of woman was described as being “husky” and having nerve, common sense, and ideals. Issues of dress involved gray versus blue suits; length of skirt (short enough, meaning showing the ankle, so a policewoman could run when necessary); type of hat (one suggestion was a gray sombrero); and the size and appearance of their star-shaped badge. Regarding weapons, some, including Louise DeKoven Bowen, believed that women already possessed the most effective weapon necessary to enforce the law: common sense. Others, like Minona Fitts Jones, felt they should be fully armed with one pistol—maybe two—but not clubs (Jones did not care for the look of the club). Although the cohort of women started out believing that “education . . . was more effective than force,” this view did not last long. Patrolling the streets of Chicago was (and still is) a hands-on, often dangerous job.
After the initial sorting out of who and what the Chicago policewoman would be, the new recruits did go out armed, wore some semblance of a uniform, and saw the range of their duties broaden over time. Today, approximately 25 percent of the Chicago Police Department is made up of women.
A selection of Chicago Police Department badges are now on display in the exhibition Chicago: Crossroads of America. Come take a look.