The First Policewoman
When we think of historically significant women, most of us think of people like Rosa Parks, a major face of the Civil Rights movement, or Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Others might think of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Frank, or Susan B. Anthony. While these women undoubtedly were influential, the reality is that many more women have had an impact than just those that we are taught about in history class.
In honor of National Policewoman Day on September 12th, we’d like to introduce you to Alice Stebbins Wells: the first true policewoman (1). She was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Force in 1910 after convincing the mayor, city council and police commissioner to pass legislation that allowed her to join.
Who Was Alice Stebbins Wells?
Before her career as a policewoman, Wells studied theology and criminology at Hartford Seminary, followed by serving as a pastor and social welfare worker in Oklahoma. In 1906, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles, where she began her campaign for the inclusion of women as officers on the police force.
At the time, women primarily worked in law enforcement as matrons in institutions for women and juveniles. However, Wells was serious about getting hired as a policewoman, so after she gained the requisite 100 signatures on a petition from her fellow citizens, she asked the mayor, police commissioner and the city council to allow women to be appointed as policewomen. After they approved the petition and passed the appropriate legislation, Wells was finally appointed in September 1910 as the nation’s first designated policewoman with all the authority of her male counterparts.
First Days on the Job
On her first day at work, she was given a telephone call box key, a book of rules, a first aid book, and a policeman’s badge (she was not given a uniform – she had to sew that herself). At the time, the policeman’s badge entitled officers to free transportation on the trolley to work, however, when Wells displayed her badge, the conductor accused her of misusing her husband’s identity. Shortly afterward, she was presented with a badge titled ‘Policewoman’s Badge Number One’.
Her initial duties included supervising and enforcing laws regarding “dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades, picture shows, and other similar public recreation”. However, after a few months on the job, she was given additional responsibilities when her fellow officers adapted a policy that no young women could be questioned by male officers. The reasoning behind this was that “policewomen, who, by their womanly sympathy and intuition, are able to gain the confidence of their younger sisters”.
Within two years of her appointment, there were three policewomen and three police matrons in the Los Angeles Police Force.
A Powerful Change
The additional policewomen in the Los Angeles Police Department were only the beginning of the change that Wells brought to the law enforcement community.
Her initial appointment in 1910 brought national publicity, and by 1916, her efforts in promoting the need for female officers resulted in the hiring of policewoman in 16 other cities and several foreign countries. Wells traveled and gave lectures to police departments and the public on the idea that having female police officers would lead to “safer streets, improved social conditions, and an increase in the overall welfare of cities”. She also assisted in the initial organization of the International Policewoman’s Association in 1915.
By 1918, Wells persuaded UCLA to offer the first course to its students on the work of women police officers.
Her career concluded in 1940, when she had been a policewoman for 30 years.
Alice Stebbins Wells’ career was influential for several reasons, but especially for her fight for the idea that women are particularly well-qualified to perform protective and preventative work amongst juveniles and female criminals.
Though her name is not commonly known in households, her actions left a lasting impact on the law enforcement community in Los Angeles, and moreover, the United States as a whole. An unsuspecting social worker from Oklahoma turned policewoman shows all of us that sometimes the most unlikely people can sometimes make the biggest change.
(1) Several other women are also considered to be the first policewoman, however, they did not hold the powers of arrest, so for the purpose of this article, we are focusing on Alice Stebbins Wells.