Are Women Police Officers Accepted Today?
Since the early 1900s, there has been debate as to whether there is a place in the United States law enforcement system for women. The controversy surrounds the duties and extent of participation that should be afforded to women and whether or not their roles are helpful to the prevention of crime and improvement of the social well being of the country. Let's explore the history of women wearing a badge and the significant changes in their jobs over the years. And let's discuss the underlying question, are women police officers accepted today?
Early History of Women in Police Work
Controversy not only involves the acceptance of female officers, but also surrounds the identity of the first woman to serve. The Chicago police department hired Mary Owens in 1893 to assist with cases involving women and children, a job that she did for 30 years.
Some people say Lola Baldwin of Portland, Oregon in 1908 was the first policewoman. She was a sworn police officer with arrest powers, however, she was quick to point out that her duties centered around crime prevention and social work. Hence, she did not wear a uniform or carry a gun. A newspaper article of that time period used the term "municipal mother" in describing Baldwin.
Another social worker with a badge was Alice Stebbin Wells of the Los Angeles Police Department who came on the force in 1910. The first person to actually be called "policewoman", Wells has been quoted as saying, "I don't want to make arrests, I want to keep people from needing to be arrested."
Cora Parchment has the distinction of being the first African American policewoman in the Untied States after being hired by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1919. Many years would pass before the first African American woman would be named Chief of Police in Atlanta in 1994.
Regardless of who was the first, female police officers have been a part of the United States law enforcement system since the turn of the 20th century, even though their roles were limited. Some would describe them as "police matrons" yet they served as a catalyst for what would happen in the years to follow.
Attitudes Begin to Change in 1940s
The early 1900s was a time that found women working in the home while the husband was the breadwinner. No matter how archaic this may seem by today's standards, it was the norm during that time in history, with rare exceptions.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, working women were looked down upon by society. There weren't enough jobs to go around for the male workers that were trying to feed their families. The sentiment was that women should be looking for husbands and not jobs!
One of the major contributing factors that started a gradual shift in that attitude was World War II in the 1940s. Due to the large number of men going overseas to fight the war effort, women moved into traditional male jobs out of necessity. The country needed these jobs to be filled in order to carry on business as usual on the home front, regardless of the gender of the worker.
This switch in job roles was mainly true in factories as evidenced by the famous "Rosie the Riveter". Females in police work held clerical positions and were dispatchers. However, this time period was the beginning of an awareness that women could function in male jobs. Looking back in time, this may have been the turning point that would eventually lead to women serving as police officers in every sense of the job title.
1960s and 1970s Were a Turning Point for Policewomen
The 1960s were a time of unrest in many areas, especially women's rights. Females started to view their roles in the workplace differently and demanded to be treated as equals to men. They wanted the chance for advancement within the police ranks while doing the same jobs as their male counterparts.
It was the culmination of a long, hard battle when in 1968 two female officers in the Indianapolis Police Department were assigned to duty patrolling in a police car. This was a milestone that paved the way for more female patrol units across the United States.
The final thing that needed to happen to ensure equality for women in the law enforcement system occurred in 1972. That was when Title VII of the Civil Rights Law was changed to eliminate discrimination against hiring and promotions in the public sector which included police agencies. The bottom line of this change was that law enforcement agencies could lose part of their funding if found in violation of this discrimination law. Money talks so this opened doors for women to work in all realms of the police world.
It still took a while but change was clearly demonstrated in 1985 when Penny Harrington of Portland, Oregon became the first female police chief in the country and Beverly Harvard of Atlanta became the first African American female chief in 1994.
True life story of author Suzie Ivy who graduated from the police academy at the age of 45. Funny and eye opening!
Pros and Cons of Women in Police Work
First, let's talk about why there was such hesitancy in allowing women to enter the law enforcement arena.
We have already established that until the last half of the 20th century, a woman's place was believed to be in the home. Let's put that notion aside, and look specifically at moving women into a dangerous and physically demanding profession. Here are a few easily disputed points that were argued against such a bold step for the time period:
- Women can't possibly win a physical battle with a man she is attempting to arrest.
- Female officers would be easily intimidated.
- Male instinct of the policemen would be to protect the female officers in critical situations, thereby, leaving themselves open for harm
- Jealously would run rampant among the wives of policemen whose husbands would spend their entire shift with a woman partner
- Women are afraid of guns and can't match the marksmanship skills of men
- The "bad guys" won't take a lady cop seriously
Over time, all of these theories have been proven false. With proper training, women have shown that they can overcome these concerns. Here are a few counter-arguments to these objections:
- The female officer's demeanor can assist them in diffusing violent situations
- A woman can be just as physically fit as a man
- Women can be just as brave as her male counterpart
- Surveys have shown, in most cases, the public has the same level of respect for police officers, regardless of the gender. Respect is for the badge.
Women in Law Enforcement
Statistics show that as of 2011, 13% of law enforcement personnel were women.
This book examines the issues that play into the decision to stick it out or leave that many policewomen face.
Are Women Police Officers Accepted Today?
Gone are the skirts and high heeled shoes that "lady deputies" in the 1970s were forced to wear. They no longer carry a 2-inch gun hidden in their purses. They are no longer just dispatchers or "meter maids". Women are working in all facets of law enforcement and are holding jobs in all ranks of their departments.
Television shows like Cagney and Lacy, NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues and Third Watch, to name just a few, may have led the way for public support and acceptance of these women in blue.
Not surprisingly, criticism of female police still exists in the police station. As in any job that has been traditionally male populated, discrimination and sexual harassment among the workers can and does happen. As a new generation of workers with a higher degree of acceptance and a more modern and tolerant attitude fill the workplace, those problems will shrink.
The good news today is that criticism of female officers is on a case by case basis and not just a broad, sweeping complaint of all women in law enforcement in general. Automobile drivers no longer turn their heads when a female deputy passes them in a patrol car.
Albeit, this acceptance by the public and fellow officers may be more prevalent in large metropolitan areas, rural areas have also come to rely on these female officers during a time of need.
These women with badges are performing the job they are sworn to do ... protecting the public.
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© 2014 Thelma Raker Coffone
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