Women in Police Research Paper

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Women entered policing in a number of countries, including the United States, at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century as educated specialists to assist male police officers in their interactions with women and juvenile offenders and victims. Their entry into municipal policing was part of a movement of women out of the home and into charitable work that had a few years earlier led reformist women into jails and prisons.

Women’s official presence in policing in the United States is often recognized with the granting of enforcement authority to social worker Lola Baldwin by the Portland, Oregon, Police Department in 1905 to protect women and girls from the expected crowds of rowdy men at the Lewis and Clark Exposition (a type of world’s fair) and the department’s decision in 1908 to create a Department of Public Safety for the Protection of Young Girls and Women with Baldwin as director. Due to the localized nature of law enforcement in the United States, the recognition given to Baldwin, and in 1910 to Alice Stebbins Wells by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), has tended to minimize the women who as early as the 1870s were employed as sheriffs’ deputies, assisting their sheriff husbands either officially or unofficially. Women also entered federal law enforcement before they entered local policing; women deputy US marshals have been identified as early as 1890, mostly in the American west (Schulz 2004, 2005). Despite these earlier appointments, the backgrounds, aims, and duties of Baldwin and Wells have come to personify the initial roles of policewomen primarily as social workers assisting women and juveniles who came into contact with police as victims or offenders.

From their first entry into corrections and law enforcement, women’s roles evolved from volunteers to paid professionals. They developed a professional ethos closely aligned with social workers rather than male police officers. Their numbers and roles expanded during both World War I and World War II and contracted during periods of economic depression, but with few exceptions, women police officers’ responsibilities were closely associated with juveniles, women, and vice enforcement until the 1960s, when they diverged from their specialist roles to undertake the full range of police duties on an equal basis with their male colleagues. This was the result of a number of legal changes precipitated by women’s changing roles in the work force and in society generally. Conflict over the changes within the police establishment was evidenced by the large number of court cases and legal consent decrees that enforced women’s demands for expanded access to assignments throughout police departments and for promotional opportunities.

Outside municipal policing, at the county level, a small number of women became not the sheriff’s wife or widow, but the actual sheriff. Although in each case her status was an outgrowth of her husband’s status, a few of the women were active sheriffs and in many ways were not that different from many women in politics who have and continue to literally or figuratively inherit their positions from spouses or fathers. By the 1970s, though, a few women broke direct family links and were elected on their own merits (Schulz 2004).

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, women constituted about 15 % of law enforcement officers nationally (Schulz 2012). Percentages varied considerably by size of department and type of agencies. With only few exceptions, women constituted a larger percentage of officers in large municipal police departments, and a smaller percentage of state police agencies. Within federal law enforcement, the figures varied widely, from female special agents making up about 30 % of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents to only single digits in the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) (Reaves 2006). Women today hold all ranks, including having served as chiefs of such large city departments as Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC; two have led state police agencies, and a small number have risen to the highest ranks of federal law enforcement.

From Jail And Prison Reformers To “Municipal Housekeeping”

The entry of women into policing first as matrons and then as policewomen can be traced directly to the period that began in the 1820s, when in England and somewhat later in the United States, Quaker and evangelical women entered penal institutions as volunteers to provide religious and secular training for female inmates. Within a short time, other upper-middle-class women joined these volunteers in trying to reform the inmates, primarily through religious instruction, and training them for jobs as domestics in Christian homes (Freedman 1981; Rafter 1992). By focusing on sexual exploitation as a major cause of women’s criminality, these volunteers helped to formulate what would become a major focus of early policewomen, specifically working with women and young girls to keep them away from places deemed immoral. This included dance halls, pool rooms, movie theaters, and other public entertainment venues, due in large part to the presence of unattached men. The availability of alcoholic beverages at many of these locations was also seen as contributing to promiscuous behavior. Policewomen also became involved with the mothers of these juveniles, often reflecting class distinctions that resulted in their criticism of the parenting styles of immigrant and poorer women.

Women’s expanding roles in society were also fostered by the American Civil War in the 1860s, which led to great activism among women in both the north and the south (O’Neill 1969). With so many men off to war, women formed vast networks of voluntary associations that led them to develop the concept of “municipal housekeeping” – which allowed them to move into the public sphere without violating women’s traditional role in the home. Beginning at this time and continuing through the Progressive Era, generally defined as from the 1890s to the post-World War I era in 1920s, municipal housekeeping came to encompass virtually all activities that placed newly established government agencies in contact with women and children.

At a time when fewer social welfare organizations existed, portions of what is now the criminal justice system provided an entry for women into these areas. Concerns for women in jails and prisons gave way to concerns about those in police custody. Police stations often functioned as homeless shelters, and many of those housed there were women and their children. This led female reformers to demand that women be available to assure that women seeking shelter, almost always poor and frequently inebriated, were not vulnerable to the advances of male keepers (Schulz 1995). Behind the considerable efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), joined later by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), and the Florence Crittenden Circle (which financed homes for unwed mothers), these women were able by the 1880s to convince a number of police departments to hire matrons.

The matrons generally lacked full police authority and were often widows selected by the reformers because the position came with a small set of rooms in the police station. They provided custodial care for incarcerated women and children or those using the police stations as shelters. Within a decade, some matrons had expanded their duties to assist police in questioning women. By the time Lola Baldwin and Alice Stebbins Wells were appointed to duties outside the stationhouse, many matrons were doing similar tasks without official recognition.

Despite difficulties in generalizing, policewomen differed from matrons in a number of important ways: they possessed powers of arrest similar to male police officers, they investigated cases involving women and children rather than merely providing custodial care, and they were generally educated, uppermiddle-class women who viewed themselves as superior to their male colleagues, most of whom were immigrants with less education and of lower social class than the policewomen (Schulz 1995). Yet these distinctions could often be blurred; some cities, particularly small ones, often used the titles matron and policewoman interchangeably.

Developing A Professional Ethos

In large part due to their different backgrounds from policemen and their focus on issues surrounding women and juveniles, policewomen developed a professional ethos in advance of policemen and one that placed them within feminist and reformist movements. Until they formed their own organization, the International Association of Policewomen (IAP), in 1915, many participated in the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections (NCCC – later the National Conference of Social Workers [NCSW]). It was at an NCCC conference that Wells announced the formation of the IAP. Only in 1922 did the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), recognize policewomen as essential members of modern departments. The recognition came at the urging of Chief August Vollmer, of Berkeley, California, who served as president that year. Vollmer, a reformer remembered for his advocacy of police training and his attempts to raise the educational level of police officers, was one of few chiefs who supported policewomen, who were most likely to be appointed at the urging of outsiders over the objections of police chiefs.

Policewomen’s supporters and advocates were those working in or seeking to expand women’s influence in corrections, the juvenile courts, and in probation and parole. In none of these fields did the women seek close association with male colleagues. Women in corrections advocated for women’s prisons and jails; in the juvenile courts, they sought female referees (judges) to adjudicate cases involving girls; and in policing, the women sought women’s bureaus. This organizational model echoed corrections leaders’ success in creating and taking control of women’s prisons and juvenile institutions. Here, women were able to achieve top positions as wardens of all-female institutions as early as 1873, when Indiana established the Reformatory Institution of Women and Girls. It was the first independent women’s prison, the first to have a female superintendent, and the first to be run by an entirely female staff (Freedman 1981). While early policewomen saw the development of women’s bureaus as heralding their success, over time, and as the women’s career orientations changed, the bureaus had the affect of isolating them from mainstream policing.

Others who advocated for appointments of first matrons and then policewomen were temperance leaders, social workers, and social hygienists (public health officials and medical practitioners). All were in the mainstream of what historian Anthony M. Platt (1977) termed “child savers,” members of the newly developing professions that revolved around protecting children. Although not all child savers were women, Platt described the movement as influenced by the maternal values of middle-class women who extended their homemaker roles of family and childcare into the public sphere. In corrections, this led to women’s institutions being set up in a cottage format that attempted to replicate a family structure (Freedman 1981; Rafter 1992).

In policing, even prior to the development of women’s bureaus, it led to some women being described as “city mothers” and organized into a City Mother’s Bureau. In the LAPD, Lucy Gray Thompson began using that title in the 1880s. The bureau was retained until 1963, when many of its duties were taken over by social welfare agencies (Appier 1998). Its affinity with these agencies can be seen in descriptions provided by Gray’s daughter, Aletha Gilbert, who succeeded her mother. By 1922, Gray and her two assistants had established a day nursery for children of working mothers that was staffed by four nurses and also provided counseling to women and children (Gilbert 1922; LAPD 1974).

Similarly, women’s bureau directors highlighted their facilities’ homelike atmospheres. They described them as places women and girls could come for aid and advice and discuss their problems with women officers. Descriptions included the bureaus’ locations away from the male police officers and their having easy chairs, couches, bright-colored curtains, flowers, and even caged canaries at the windows (Appier 1998; Schulz 1995).

At a time when policemen were required to have minimal education requirements beyond the ability to read and write English, the leaders of the policewomen’s movement placed great emphasis on hiring women with college or at least high school diplomas and suggested hiring women with prior experience in social service, education, nursing, or fields with public contact. In addition to providing a clear delineation from male officers, these stringent requirements also set the policewomen apart from the less-educated matrons.

The high entry standards were endorsed not only by white women but by the African-American clubwomen who lobbied for appointments of policewomen of their race. Despite more limited opportunities for African-American women, the earliest black policewomen were accomplished members of their communities. Georgia Robinson, the first African-American female member of the LAPD, and possibly the first African-American policewoman, for instance, initially was appointed a matron based on her civic involvement and in 1916 was promoted to policewoman. Although records of the earliest black women appointed to the New York City Police Department (NYPD) are incomplete, at least one was a nurse who had also been a high school teacher. Others were often teachers, social workers, civic leaders, or ministers’ wives (Schulz 1995). Cities that hired black policewomen around this time included Chicago, Washington, DC, Indianapolis, and Columbus and Toledo, Ohio; all the women were hired to work with African-American women and juveniles, primarily to patrol dance halls and other areas where guardians of morality were believed to be necessary (Dulaney 1996).

Two visible signs of police authority that the women eschewed were uniforms and firearms. United States policewomen virtually always worked in plainclothes, unlike early British policewomen, whose uniforms were described by Mary Sullivan, the head of the NYPD Women’s Bureau, as “unattractive, mannish suits, topped by a helmet that looked like a soup tureen.. .” (Sullivan 1938, pp. 283–284). In addition to what was likely disdain for uniforms based on their social class and education level, the policewomen and their advocates stated that working in street clothes would allow them to interact with women and girls without the stigma of having been approached in public or visited at their homes by police officers. Most also went unarmed and avoided physical confrontations, although a number of exceptions existed. For instance, in San Francisco, Kathryne Eisenhart, one of the policewomen who came to be known as the “Three Kates” along with Kate O’Connor and Kathlyn Sullivan, was so seriously beaten during a 1917 arrest of two brothers that she retired on disability in 1931 after recurring physical problems. The two policewomen hired in San Diego in 1926 were described as “excellent marksmen,” one of whom shot a would-be assailant who lunged at her during a stakeout in a local park. A feature article about Detroit’s policewomen during World War II mentioned that some carried firearms while others chose not to (Schulz 1995).

By the 1950s, though, most departments had issued uniforms and firearms to their policewomen. The uniforms were primarily for special events, but the women were now expected to carry the firearms, along with handcuffs and their personal items, in handbags made specifically for this purpose. Indicating changes in the women’s view of themselves, Lois Lundell Higgins, president of the International Association of Women Police (IAWP), the successor to the IAP, in 1958, called policewomen the feminine arm of the law, the one that “rocks the cradle, and sometimes shoots a wicked .38” (Schulz 1995, p. 122).

While Higgins and the majority of the policewomen of her generation did not interpret this to mean policewomen should police on an equal basis with men, by the late 1960s some younger women chafed at the limitations to their careers brought about by unequal hiring standards, dissimilar training, fewer assignments open to them, and lack of upward mobility. At the time, women who were completely shut out of state policing or federal law enforcement positions began to question why these careers were closed to them.

The Uniformed Patrol Revolution

Until women began to patrol in uniform in marked police cars, the changes in their roles had been evolutionary. Depending on factors in particular departments, policewomen’s roles had changed from overwhelmingly preventive and investigative to enforcement-oriented. In some cities women worked in uniform (generally dark-colored skirts and white or light blue blouses, black or navy blue pumps, and the-by-now common utility shoulder handbag) at parks, beaches, and other places of public amusements. Many were involved in dangerous undercover assignments. Others worked with male colleagues on sensitive investigations. A woman was needed for the case, whether for her ability to blend in better than a man or men alone could, whether because it was perceived by male supervisors that she would be more able to elicit information from women victims or offenders, or for other reasons. Always, though, she was selected because she was a woman.

But having women patrol in uniform in a marked police car answering general calls for service from the public was not an evolution – it was a revolutionary change. This is belied by the casual way in which it occurred. In September 1968 in Indianapolis, policewomen Betty Blankenship and Elizabeth Coffal reminded their chief, Winston Churchill, that, years earlier, as a police academy instructor, he had commented that if he were ever in charge, he would permit women on uniformed patrol. With one’s day notice, he kept his word, sending the women out together as the history-making Car 47. Dispatchers, at the time mostly male, avoided sending the women on assignments; male officers worried the women would not be able to protect themselves or other officers. But the patrol partners received grudging acceptance after they arrested a man who had beaten a woman to death. Although neither remained on patrol for their entire careers, they opened up to women opportunities that had not previously existed. Within a year, Washington, DC, announced the end of separate entry requirements for male and female officers and within 2 years women also patrolled in Miami, Florida (Schulz 1995).

In conjunction with a number of earlier lawsuits against individual departments opening up civil service promotion ranks to policewoman, a number of laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s provided support for women’s demands to end sex-based titles and assignments and for full participation in policing. These included the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which had little effect until the 1970s when titles of patrolman and policewoman were changed to the unisex police officer. Its effectiveness had been hampered; because women worked under a separate title with different duties, their work had not considered equal. The 1964 Civil Rights Act also had little impact until 1972, when its provisions were extended to government agencies. Funds for police departments, though, played a major role in forcing change. The 1973 Crime Control Act specified that grantees would be ineligible for funds if their employment practices were considered discriminatory. On that basis, police departments – including state police agencies – that had avoid hiring women or equalizing requirements for male and female applicants and placing women on patrol began to comply.

At the federal level, in 1969 President Richard M. Nixon had issued Executive Order 11478, which prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, or age. Earlier rulings had allowed women to be barred from positions that required carrying a firearm, so only after 1971, when the US Civil Service Commission cancelled the exemption, did women become eligible for federal law enforcement positions. The effect was immediate; that same year, the US Secret Service and the US Postal Inspection Service became the first agencies to hire women special agents, joined the following year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Schulz 2005, 2009).

Conclusion And Future Research

What does the future hold for women in law enforcement? The trends appear contradictory. The percentages of women overall in law enforcement agencies have not increased in the last decade. Combining all levels of agencies – local, county, state, and federal – women comprise about 15 % of sworn officers (Schulz 2012) yet the differences in career orientation between the men and the women appear to be shrinking.

Today, after almost a half century of women on patrol, it is difficult to imagine the thousands of studies that were undertaken to determine whether women were capable of patrol, whether they would make the same numbers and types of arrests as men, whether men would work with them, whether citizens would accept them, and, in general, whether women and men policed in similar or in different fashions. The studies, almost all focused on municipal policing, have resulted in contradictory findings, but generally found few substantive differences between female and male officers and sometimes have resulted in contradictory conclusions. But because the studies generally looked at only one department, or were based only on the patrol officers, or surveyed a self-selected group of women officers at conferences sponsored by women’s law enforcement groups, it is difficult to generalize their findings beyond that women are competent patrol officers and that their male colleagues have come to accept their presence albeit sometimes still grudgingly.

In a meta-analysis of past research, Carol A. Archbold and Dorothy Moses Schulz (2012) found that recent studies have found more similarities than differences between men and women, while earlier studies seemed to find more differences. They posit that this change may result from presumptions by the researchers, attitude changes among women – and possibly men – entering police work, or police agencies’ greater stress on community relations and involvement, the latter areas in which some earlier studies found women excelled. The findings may also result from these studies focusing on less gender-specific issues and more on factors that determine the reason for becoming a police officer, the decision to arrest or use force, and factors that influence the decisions by officers to compete for promotion.

Thus, there appears to be recognition among researchers that numbers and percentages do not tell the whole story. Questions that might be considered are whether women are accepted into law enforcement careers in the same percentages they apply, whether they complete training in percentages equal to their acceptance, whether there are organizational or societal barriers that contribute to the apparent stagnation in women’s entry, and whether retention and promotion rates are similar for male and female officers.

The fragmented nature of United States policing makes progress more difficult to measure than in other countries, where there are – if not only one large national force – far fewer law enforcement agencies. Fewer agencies make it easier for researchers and demographers to count numbers and chart progress. Another issue is whether progress should be measured only in terms of upward mobility, particularly in a field where narrow organizational pyramids guarantee that few police officers will ever become chiefs of police and that, in fact, few rise to even such second-level supervisory ranks as corporal or sergeant.

Issues In Upward Mobility

An issue that has recently drawn considerable attention is upward mobility. Prior to the 1980s, few women held ranks higher than policewoman and the few who did were almost overwhelmingly in charge only of other women. The few women who were elected or appointed sheriffs were stand-ins for their husbands – they were appointed when their husbands died, or – particularly in Wisconsin – were elected in place of their husbands as way to avoid existing term limits laws (Schulz and Houghton 2003). This changed in 1985, with the selection of Penny Harrington as chief of the Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau (Schulz 2004). Although tenure for police chiefs is often brief, Harrington’s was only 17 months, during which, she noted “controversy and confrontation were my constant companions” (Harrington 1999, p. 214). But they were her companions well before she was named chief; during her career she had filed more than 40 lawsuits against the department (Harrington 1999; Schulz 2004).

Other chiefs have been less controversial and most are likely to avoid discussions of their being a female chief rather than the chief. Yet female chiefs are still rare; Schulz (2004) estimated there were about 200 women chiefs, about 1 % of the approximately 18,000 police chiefs across the United States. Although high turnover and the large number of police agencies makes an accurate count virtually impossible, there are indications, primarily from newspaper articles documenting selection of a woman chief, that the number has doubled to about 2 % of women law enforcement chief executives (used to describe police chiefs or commissioners, sheriffs, and women leading federal law enforcement agencies).

Recent research into women in traditionally male fields has raised questions as to whether numbers and percentages provide a complete picture. Larger societal issues may play a role that has often been neglected. Studies of men in female-dominated professions such as librarianship and nursing, for instance, have found that men were advantaged in upward mobility, attributed primarily to having higher status in society based on their sex (Ott 1989; Yoder 1991). A number of studies, though, raise a question of whether upward mobility is the correct way to measure success, since many in law enforcement do not seek promotion at all (Whetstone and Deborah 1999; Whetstone 2001). Researchers who had anticipated that women would serve as change agents of the culture of law enforcement and corrections agencies have also indicated they were mistaken. They found, rather, that possibly because they believed themselves lacking in institutional support, women were traditional in their leadership styles and less willing to take chances (Zimmer 1986; Engel 2000).

While these studies appear to close off many areas of future research, they raise the possibilities that researchers need to look more carefully at cultural clues in particular agencies or types of agencies. Are there law enforcement agencies with styles that foster a desire to move up in rank or, contrarily, are there agencies in which the specialist units are so highly-regarded that officers are content to remain in them as long as possible? Is one culture better than the other; and whose definition of better would prevail? Is too much research emphasis placed solely on police officers – whether male or female – rather than on the higher ranking personnel? Similarly, can studies in local police departments be generalized to sheriffs’ offices or to state police or federal law enforcement agencies? Lastly, might researchers focusing on women’s place in law enforcement consider comparisons with women in other fields to better gauge whether acceptance, upward mobility, or the ability to fit into or alter an agency’s culture can be measured across professions?

The importance of police in society and the unique responsibility they are given to curtail people’s liberty and to exercise deadly force means that they will always be important centers of research. Who selects a career in policing, why they do so, and how they use the powers inherent in the position, and whether any or all of these are different for men or for women, will undoubtedly continue to be fruitful areas of study for future generations.


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