When women first began to enter the police force around the turn of the 20th century, they came in through the back door as social workers tasked with upholding laws protecting women and children. Lola Greene Baldwin, sworn in "to perform police service" for the Portland, Oregon, police department on April 1, 1908, did the same thing as a "Female Detective" (that was her actual job title) as she had done for her previous employer, the Travelers Aid Society: keep young women safe from predators seeking to lure them into prostitution and a life of crime. Two years later Alice Stebbins Wells was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department to enforce laws protecting girls from hotbeds of white slavery like dance halls, skating rinks, and penny arcades.
Because of their non-standard appointments and powers, determining who was the country's first policewoman is challenging. Both Baldwin and Wells have vied for the title, but in fact they were beaten to the punch by almost 20 years. Marie Connolly Owens joined the Chicago Police Department in 1891 with the title of Detective Sergeant, full arrest powers, and a badge. She was on the department payroll and received a police pension when she retired in 1923 after 32 years on the force.
Marie Connolly was born the daughter of Irish famine immigrants in Bytown (later renamed Ottawa), on December 21, 1853. She married gas fitter Thomas Owens in 1879, and they moved to Chicago soon thereafter. Together they had five children before Thomas died of typhoid fever in 1888. Marie was widowed with five mouths to feed; her youngest was just a couple of years old. As she told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1904, up until this point she had never "earned a penny" in her life.
She entered the workforce with a bang the next year. In 1889, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance prohibiting the employment of children under 14 years old unless they had extraordinary circumstances requiring them to work. To enforce the ordinance, the city hired five women as sanitary inspectors to monitor conditions in stores, factories, and tenements. Women, all of them married or widowed mothers, got the jobs because dealing with children was deemed to be in their natural purview. Mrs. Owens, Mrs. Byford Leonard, Mrs. J.R. Doolittle, Mrs. Ada Sullivan, and Mrs. Glennon formed the first board of sanitary inspectors in the country to be given official authority by the city. They reported to the Commissioner of Health and were paid salaries of $50 a month.
Sanitary inspector Marie Owens dove into her work with a passion, removing illegally employed children from their workplaces, helping them find other means of support and even paying out of her own pocket to help their destitute families. She soon earned a reputation for zeal and effectiveness tempered by a diplomatic approach to parents, children, and business owners that made her as popular as someone in her role could be.
In 1891, the newly appointed Chief of Police, Major Robert Wilson McClaughrey—a tireless reformer with a particular interest in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders—took notice of Mrs. Owens's efforts in tracking down wife deserters—men we now call deadbeat dads. Owens saw first-hand how many children were forced to seek employment to keep the family from starving after the father abandoned them. She was relentless in ferreting these men out and turning them into the police, so much so that McClaughrey decided to employ Owens in the detective bureau.
Marie Owens was now Sergeant No. 97, with the rank, salary, badge, and arrest powers of any detective (although she made infrequent use of the latter two). She was detailed to the Board of Education where her brief was enforcing child labor, truancy, and compulsory education laws. In an op-ed she wrote for the July 28, 1901, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Owens described her early days on the job:
The sights to be seen in the slums today can in no way compare with those of ten years ago and the suffering due to the inability of the older members of the family to work is, indeed, pitiable. Children were found working in factories all over the city, the frail little things in many cases being under 7. The pittance of 75 cents or $1 a week, however, helped to buy food for a sick mother, though it was at the cost of health and education.
When the work was first begun a woman wearing a police sergeant's star was a novelty. Manufacturers in some cases were not inclined to admit me to their workshops, but armed with the strong arm of the law and the will to do good I soon found that in most cases the merchants met me half way and rendered me great assistance. As a result the children were gradually thinned out, and the employers became accustomed to asking for affidavits required by law before work was given to children. Mothers had to depose as to the children's ages, and with these papers the latter were enabled to get employment in the larger factories and stores.
Owens, like Baldwin and Wells after her, made a point of differentiating what she did from the work of male police officers. In almost every contemporary news article about her, her success in law enforcement was subsumed under her femininity, maternal instinct, charitable nature, and kind heart. A 1906 story in the Chicago Daily Tribune assured its readers that this lady police sergeant "has lost none of her womanly attributes and other detectives in the central office lift their hats when they chance to meet her." If that wasn't relief enough for anyone concerned about the dangers of masculinized womanhood, the words of Sergeant No. 97 herself were sure to soothe:
"I like to do police work," said Mrs. Owens. "It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help. Of course I know little about the kind of work the men do. I never go out looking for robbers or highwaymen. That is left for the men. ... My work is just a woman's work. In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective. Why, it has kept me poor giving in little amounts to those in want. I have yet the time to come across a hungry family that they were not given food."
Her superior officer, Captain O'Brien, gave her more credit than she gave herself in that article. "Give me men like she is a woman," he said, "and we will have the model detective bureau of the whole world."
Despite Owens's effectiveness, a woman wearing a police sergeant's star was supposed to remain a novelty. In 1895, Chicago adopted new civil service rules requiring all cops to pass the civil service exam (Owens scored a 99 percent) and allowing for appointment of women as regular factory, tenement, or child labor inspectors independent of the police force. Had those rules been in effect in 1891, Mrs. Owens would probably have been made a government inspector rather than a police detective. Because she was so great at her job and had an unblemished service record, she was kept on the police force after the new rules were in place instead of being transferred. In an article in the August 7, 1904, Chicago Daily Tribune, the new rules were assumed to have made women police officers obsolete. The civil service rules "will forever prevent the appointment of more feminine patrolmen. Mrs. Owens will undoubtedly remain as she has been for fifteen years, the only woman police officer in the world."
Four years later, Lola Greene Baldwin put an end to that assumption with her April Fool's Day appointment. Two years after that, Alice Stebbins Wells charged into the fray and soon became the national posterchild for female police officers. She went on lecture tours emphasizing the need for women on the force to deal appropriately with women and children. In one of those lectures, delivered at Brooklyn's Civic Forum in 1914, Wells showed how foolish the poor Chicago Daily Tribune's prognostications had been: "There are four policewomen in Los Angeles, five in Seattle, and 25 in Chicago," she said, "and the time is coming when every city will have policewomen, both in plain clothes and in uniform."
Wells' tours made her so famous throughout the country that even though just a few years earlier Det. Sgt. Marie Owens had been the subject and author of numerous newspaper stories about her pioneering position in the Chicago Police Department, Wells became fixed in the cultural imagination as the first woman police officer in the nation. Owens was still on the job when this misconception took hold, keeping her shoulder to the wheel and never, so far as we know, seeking to correct the record publicly.
She retired in 1923 at the age of 70 and moved to New York to live with her daughter. When she died four years later, the notice made no mention of her 32 years on the police force. She faded even further from memory after a historian confused her with a Mary Owens, the widow of a policeman, in a 1925 book on female police officers.
The real Marie Owens and her many accomplishments were rediscovered by, appropriately, a retired DEA agent whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were Chicago cops. Rick Barrett was researching fallen police officers when he found a reference to Owens as the wife of a slain cop. Death records revealed that Mr. Owens had been a gas fitter, not a cop, and Barrett pulled on the thread until the whole rich tapestry unraveled. After nigh on a decade of research, Barrett is writing a book about Detective Sergeant Marie Owens that will restore her to her proper role in history.