Breaking and Entering: How Women First Joined the Police Force

It isn’t a stretch to say that powerful women have, had and always will have, an effect on the men around them. This is especially so when the power dynamic within a society is so skewed in the favour of the masculine sex. Our social history in America can be considered patriarchal in its integrity, harking back to our European ties and their social structure- therefore making it harder for women to break away from the private sphere of the home, into the public sphere of work. This can particularly be seen when women began to enter the police force during the Victorian Era in the United States. The positions held by women in the justice system first began within prisons, as they held the title of Matron and looked after the physical and moral welfare of the female inmates. Over decades, these jobs made way for female police officers that offered the same type of guidance to women and children within the wider context of society.

In a time when women’s feminine traits were seen as a weakness- attributes unworthy of distinction in the working field- surprisingly one type of career began to embrace the motherly characteristics of women- that of matron and police officer. During the later 1800s and into the 1900s women began making headway in the public sphere of social work and policing- using their motherly, and distinctly feminine, attributes to their advantage.

The role women played in the police force began as somewhat of an extension of their roles they played within society and the home. The conventional ideals at the time forced women into the role of motherhood- protecting the young, guarding the family morality and all around nurturing their own- the same type of ideals female officers were meant to uphold on the job[i]. In some instances these policewomen were referred to as municipal mothers, or ‘city mothers’, reinforcing the fact that it was in their best interest to use these feminine traits to their advantage. In most cases female officers wanted to separate themselves from their male counterparts because it befitted their status as care giving mothers, aligning their feminine attributes with their mission to serve women and youths in a specialised, nonviolent and amiable manner[ii]. This stands in stark contrast to the functions of policemen who used their masculine strength to break up public disturbances, arrest criminals and used force, rather than a moral dialogue, to uphold the law.

The first policewoman of the United States was officially sworn into office in September of 1910. Alice Stebbins Wells joined the Los Angeles Police Department and was given recognition as the first female police officer in the country, when this was not necessarily accurate. Women had been serving as matrons in jails in unofficial capacities years before[iii].

Prior to Wells, women had been working within the justice system as early as the 1830s, in large part due to the pressure private women’s groups placed upon government officials. During the early 1800s men and women inmates shared the same space within county jails. In 1828 a law was passed instituting a separation between the sexes as a direct result of a scandal that took place within New York based, Auburn prison. While serving out her sentence, Rachel Welch became pregnant by another inmate while placed under solitary confinement. After giving birth, Welch died from wounds inflicted upon her by a prison official’s flogging. After her death and the new law instigating the separation of inmates based on gender, prisons needed to create new positions to take care of these incarcerated women. Auburn prison hired its first Matron in 1832 to do just that. By 1845, New York City officials decided to hire six more matrons for its two jails, after they faced pressure from the American Female Moral Reform Society. It was these women’s groups that fought for these distinctly female positions, demanding there was a need for women to take care of other women. It was these private groups, usually temperance, moral reform, women’s clubs and the like, who provided the Police department with funds for paid matron positions until the government could be convinced of the necessity of women in the police force[iv].

As the Matrons of jails began to receive recognition for their work, women prison reformers gained traction as a legitimate profession for women within the public sphere. In the face of this growing acceptance, new positions within the police force began to open for these women, advocating that there was a place for them within law enforcement. It was between 1910 and 1915 that states began to appoint women as officers of the law. By 1915, the US Census of that year reported that twenty-five cities employed policewomen- all of which were paid for by the police department themselves rather than the previous funding given by private reform groups[v].

The duties of policewomen in America differed from state to state so it can be difficult to list all such functions of the role they played in the justice system. Most states gave female officers duties consisting of patrolling the streets, inspecting public and recreational spaces to protect the morals of females and juveniles, investigating the underlying factors in juvenile delinquency and how to prevent such things, bringing into custody such delinquents and submitting reports to the juvenile court magistrate. Some states allowed policewomen to take an active role in the investigations of all types of major crimes while other states relegated them to traffic control[vi]. Female officers were also used in situations of domestic abuse, prostitution and all overlaying cases involving the physical and moral welfare of women and children in society. One such local example of a successful policewoman is that of Officer Josephine Roche.  The role she played in cleaning up the streets of Denver was so vital that many male officers detested her.

Josephine Roche came into the world on December 2nd 1886, daughter to wealthy banker and investor, John Roche and his wife in Neligh, Nebraska. The family moved to Denver in 1906. Her father’s fortune allowed Josephine to attend Vassar and obtain a degree in Sociology in 1908, continuing her education at Columbia University where she earned a Master’s degree in Social Work in 1910 with a dissertation arguing the cause and effect of low wages forcing women into prostitution entitled, “Economic Conditions in Relation to the Delinquency of Girls”. Two years after the completion of her M.A., Josephine received an offer from the Denver Police Commissioner George Creel, imploring her to become the city’s first policewoman. She hastily accepted, even though her job entailed patrolling some of the roughest areas in the city, including theatres, saloons, gambling dens and brothels. Given the title, ‘Inspector of Amusements’, she was tasked with protecting vulnerable women and stopping the exploitation of their precarious position in society[vii].

Coming from an affluent background, Roche’s social status and education level was far more common than unusual for women in the police force. Early female recruits into the force were commonly older and already married. In contrast to male officers, they tended to be well educated, socially privileged from well to do families where their incomes would not be needed in the home. Policemen, on the other hand, were among the working-class sector of society, who needed the income to support their families. This social and economic contrast illustrates the difference of intentions between the men and women who enlisted and reflects the separate roles they played within the societal constrains of the time[viii].

Police officer Roche became so good at her job- clearing out the brothels and protecting women from prostituting themselves within the Denver area- that the Fire and Police Board received enormous backlash from the male population (both on and off the force). As a result, the board fired her, citing that she was hurting the business community as means for termination, denying her any form of hearing. Roche did not idly stand by and allow this to happen, instead, she appealed to the Civil Service Commission and won back her job. She did this out of principal though, and after being reinstated, she quit the next day. Roche then accepted the position as probation officer, joining forces with Judge Ben Lindsey (as Margaret Brown did herself) to help develop his juvenile justice system[ix].

Britain was falling behind in this particular aspect of social change and in 1914 the British government passed a bill to bring women into the police force, as they had not yet done so. The British Police force put out a call for a particular type of woman officer, ‘We do not want superior physical strength, but superior moral and spiritual strength. A good many women have this; and, as far as we know, it has no relation to their size[x]’. This viewpoint mirrors that of American police officials of the time. These women officers were meant to fulfill a different type of role than their male counterparts- specifically those entailing the moral welfare of society. This mention of superior moral and spiritual strength as distinctly female illustrates the growing trend of appointing women to the role of mothers for the wider community, not just the home.

These feminine traits or attributes were becomingly highly regarded for this reason. The British police force use Josephine Roche from the Denver police as a positive example for allowing women into the police force. A contemporary news article from 19th Century and After, states:

‘In Denver, Colorado, there has been a woman in the police force since 1912. I was told in 1913 by friends living in the town that she had revolutionized the treatment of the young offender. “The best man on the Denver police force happens to be a woman,” said the chief of police… Miss Roche is the daughter of well-to-do parents, a graduate of Vassar College and a post-graduate of Columbia University. After having worked in a settlement in New York she lived in the Italian quarter there, studying the difficulties and temptations of the Italian emigrants. When she first took up the work of policewoman she tried to avoid the necessity for actual arrests. Whens he made the rounds of the places of amusements she did not say to the managers ”Do so and so or I will have you summoned.” She talked earnestly to them and spoke of the assaults and seduction that result from the nightly swarming of mere children to such places of amusement. She appealed to their sense of decency and love of family, and her policy turned the managers into active supporters of the law. She made the acquaintance of the leaders of the gangs of young hooligans. She refused to consider them as criminals, and she astonished the police when they found that these young ruffians responded to her appeals to their better nature. There is a story of an energetic policeman who went in the course of his duty to a dance hall. His presence was resented by the young Irishmen present and one of them struck him violently. A fight began and the policeman was getting the worst of it, when suddenly Miss Roche appeared on the scene. She stopped the fight with a few stern words and then escorted the policeman to a place of safety.’[xi]

This excerpt gives multiple examples of Roche’s tactics and female characteristics that hold her in good stead in terms of being a police officer. The contrast between the upheaval male officers create within situations pertaining to youth offenders, and that of Roche’s role in calming them down, reinforces the idea that such moral guidelines were more easily upheld by women due to the characteristic society placed upon them exclusively due to their sex. She entreats these downtrodden to be better, appealing to them through her motherly demeanour, as a woman is more likely to do for she knows that her own agency within society revolves upon and is precariously balanced within a male dominated society. Women understood having little or no power over their own lives and once they were able to obtain a position that gave them some sense of control- they wanted to help others like them. Comparing this to the societal status of men, who were always in a position of power over others and therefore did not feel the need to help with the social reformation female officers were charged with, we can see the vital role women carved out for themselves within the justice system.

In 1922, a convention for the International Association of Chiefs of Police was held and a resolution was passed, stating that the functions of policewomen were essential to the modern police department. Due to this declaration from an international association, the inclusion of women in the law enforcement had exponentially grown throughout the 1920s. This by no means meant the fight was over though- many male officers and police chiefs still believed policewomen were a fad and that their entry into the field was a nuisance. Where female officers fought for preventative measures of justice within the community, male officers still considered their role to be punitive in nature[xii]. Such attitudes are still prevalent in this day and age.

In 1929, Helen D. Pigeon, who held the position of Executive Secretary for the International Association of Policewomen, wrote an article entitled Women’s Era in the Police Department proclaiming that, ‘…women of today are keeping house in the police department, building quietly, but very solidly for the future, avoiding the future of a spring cleaning, and guarding what is always woman’s greatest concern, the safety and happiness of youth’[xiii]. Here Pigeon is propelling women out of the domestic sphere and into the work sphere by bringing them both together- likening the police department to the house- the role a wife and mother plays to her children, the policewoman was now playing to the wider community. Pigeon is extending the definition of family outward to encompass the community- the maternal role of the mother is now being likened to the maternal role policewomen play within the larger context of society, overall showing that the feminine traits were paramount in the role of Policewomen within the Victorian time period and later.


Written By Hannah Maiorano, Hill Education Associate



Colorado Virtual Library. (Accessed: 11-07-2017)

Koenig, Esther J. An Overview of Attitudes toward Women in Law Enforcement. Public Administration Review, Vol. 38, No. 3 (May – Jun., 1978), pp. 267-275 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Society for Public Administration.
Accessed: 06-09-2017.

Levine, Philippa. “Walking the Streets in a Way No Decent Woman Should”: Women Police in World War I. The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 34-78
Published by: The University of Chicago Press. Accessed: 06-09-2017.

Pigeon, Helen D. Woman’s Era in the Police Department. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 143, (May, 1929), pp. 249-254
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Accessed: 06-09-2017.

R.H.G. Policewomen. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Nov., 1914), pp. 606-609. Published by: Northwestern University School of Law.
Accessed: 07-09-2017.

Schulz, Dorothy Moses. From Social Worker to Crime fighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing. Praeger Publishers, 1995.

Segrave, Kerry. Policewomen: A History. McFarland, 2014, (2nd Ed.).

Shirley, Gayle C. “Josephine Roche.” More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Colorado Women. Morris Book Publishing, 2012, (2nd Ed.). 139-146.


[i] 4, Policewomen: A History

[ii] 4, From Social Worker to Crime Fighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing

[iii] 21, From Social Worker to Crime Fighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing

[iv] 9-11, From Social Worker to Crime Fighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing

[v] 23-28, From Social Worker to Crime Fighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing

[vi] 268, An Overview of Attitudes toward Women in Law Enforcement

[vii]  141-142, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Colorado Women

[viii] 64, “Walking the Streets in a Way No Decent Woman Should”: Women Police in World War I

[ix] 142, More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Colorado Women

[x] 608, Policewomen

[xi] 608, Policewomen

[xii] 268, An Overview of Attitudes toward Women in Law Enforcement

[xiii] 254, Woman’s Era in the Police Department