First female cop hired in 1891, 22 years earlier than thought
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter Sep 30, 2010
Marie Owens is believed to be the first woman police officer in the United States.
You've come a long way, baby. But it didn't take as long as what was once thought.
The first female police officer in Chicago and the nation was hired in 1891 - 22 years earlier than previously assumed - and her name was Marie Owens.
At the urging of a dogged investigator and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), the City's Council's resident historian, Chicago aldermen agreed Thursday to correct the Police Department record after deciding on a fitting tribute to Owens, who specialized in enforcing child labor laws.
"I'd love to see a bronze statue, but perhaps the re-naming of a school. This is a woman who helped thousands of children," said Rick Barrett, who uncovered the evidence.
Owens was the daughter of Irish immigrants and the widowed mother of five who crusaded against children working in factory sweatshops, first as a Health Department investigator and later as a detective sergeant in the Chicago Police Department.
Her work was documented by Chicago newspapers at the time. But police records never reflected it, apparently because Owens was confused with another woman with the same last name who was a patrolman's widow.
The official record assumed that Chicago's first female police officer was hired in 1913 - five years after one was hired in Portland, Oregon and three years after Los Angeles hired one.
Enter Barrett, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who hails from a long line of police officers and helped uncover evidence that established Constable James Quinn as the first Chicago Police officer killed in the line of duty in 1853.
Barrett stumbled upon Owens' name during the course of his broader research on the Police Department and dug through the dusty archives of the police pension fund to uncover the evidence: Owens retired in 1923 after 32 years on the force. She had a pension that amounted to half her police salary - $1,000 per year, or just over $83 per month.
The amateur historian read from an Op Ed article that Owens wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 1901 about her efforts to enforce child labor and compulsory education laws.
"When the work first began, a woman wearing a police sergeant's star was a novelty. Manufacturers, in some cases, were not inclined to admit me to their work shops. 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," he quoted Owens as writing.
Barrett also quoted one of Owens' supervisors, Capt. O'Brien, as saying, "Give me men like she is a woman and we will have the model detective bureau of the whole world."
During Thursday's hearing, Burke and Assistant Superintendent Bea Coehlo, Chicago's highest-ranking female police officer, recalled that women wore badges on their civilian clothes - not uniforms - until 1946 and once carried .32-caliber revolvers while their male counterparts used .38 caliber.
"The days of wearing skirts and being assigned to youth or other administrative functions came to an end in 1975, when women were finally given the opportunity to work in patrol. Through their perseverance, women have increasingly been recognized for their ability and strength as true leaders," Coehlo said.
When Coehlo joined the department in 1987, women comprised just nine percent of the city's sworn officers. Now, it's 24 percent, including 300 female supervisors and eleven female members of the command staff.
After urging his colleagues to "right a wrong of history," Burke openly acknowledged that his book, End of Watch, also included the mistake by ignoring Owens.
"I can assure that, if we ever do a re-printing of this book, we will correct that error," he said.