National Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate women’s contributions to history, culture and society. This year’s theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” which recognizes women in every community who use storytelling to shape the future.
A History of Women in Law Enforcement
"The growing realization in recent years that police work is, in a certain measure, social work, and that in it there exist problems which can be handled better by women than by men, has led to the employment of women in many police departments throughout the country,” says The Policewoman’s Handbook, a guide for women law enforcement professionals printed in 1933. “The policewoman’s work is highly specialized. To do it well, she requires not only good native ability and a general education, but special training.”
The book, authored by Eleonore L. Hutzel, deputy commissioner of the Detroit Police Department, guided 20th century policewomen to effectively deal with burlesque performers and patrons, so-called problem girls and unchaperoned children, and people in special districts that were “distinguishable by the grouping of individuals on the basis of common interests such as race, nationality, religion, occupation and the like.”
But Hutzel didn’t author that book to usher in a new era of women in policing. In fact, women had been involved in law enforcement – at least in some form – since the mid-1800s, when they served as prison matrons.
Before then, law enforcement was a man’s world. Early colonial policing from Jamestown to Boston generally relied on constables and sheriffs, watches, and regrettably, slave patrols. These men were responsible for dog-catching, picking up wayward kids, bringing in indentured servants and slaves who ran away, and in some towns, enforcing church attendance. In 1610, Sir Thomas Gates wrote and implemented the first legal code in English-speaking America, which included harsh penalties such as the following:
- Robbing gardens of flowers or vegetables, or stealing ears of corn: death.
- Failure to attend Sunday service: First offense, loss of one week’s allowance; second offense, same plus whipping; third offense, death.
- Failure to keep regular hours of work for the colony: First offense, to lie neck and heels together all night; second offense, whipping; third offense, galleys for one year.
Laws and penalties varied by colony, and most lightened up over time, but they were always enforced by men.
That remained true through 1631, when Boston’s citizens started the town’s first night watch. Watchmen scoured the streets for fellow colonists stumbling home after too many pints, engaging in prostitution or gambling, or otherwise disturbing the peace or offending good citizens’ morals. The all-volunteer night watch wasn’t very effective because watchmen frequently drank and slept on duty, so Boston’s town government took it over in 1636. The local government sentenced people to night watch duty as punishment for crimes and other offenses, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t work any better – but the city kept it until 1838, when it finally implemented the nation’s first publicly funded, full-time (and all-male) police force.
Women didn’t enter the law enforcement scene – at least not measurably – until around 1845.
1845: Women on the Right Side of Prison Bars
Attitudes started to shift in the mid-1800s, when officials in various localities all over the United States discovered that women and children ended up in prisons and jails, too — and they decided that women were better-suited to look after these populations. The first recorded prison matron, Flora Foster, was said to have been firm but fair. A reporter with the Troy Times once said, “Flora has a kind, motherly aspect, but her decision of character is intense and her orders are beyond appeal.” Women continued to serve as prison matrons in growing numbers throughout the country, leaving law enforcement duties to men.
1904: The Only Woman Police Officer in the World
In 1904, Marie Owens — by most accounts, the first woman police sergeant — took a job with the Chicago Police Department. At the time, reporters touted her as “the only feminine police sergeant in the world.” Owens, who had a long history as a special health officer with Chicago PD, was a widow and mother of five who joined the force to help enforce child labor laws.
Existing laws from that time were designed to stop other women from becoming police. A 1904 article in the Chicago Tribune said, “The civil service rules now making provision for similar trained effort on the part of other women, 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.”
1908: Full-Time, Paid Police Work for Women
Little did the Chicago Tribune and the rest of the world know that just four short years later, Lola Green Baldwin would become the first woman hired as a full-time, paid law enforcement officer under civil service rules.
Baldwin passed her civil service exam with flying colors, outperforming three other applicants for the “city superintendent of detective work for girls.”
1910: From Purity Squads to Policewomen
In 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells was the first woman to fill a police position under a Los Angeles city ordinance that created the office of policewoman. Wells was mostly interested in morality policing, telling reporters, “My work is to be chiefly where young people gather for entertainment in parks, penny arcades, moving picture shows and dance halls. I will deal chiefly with the proprietors of such places and will see that all laws are obeyed and the places are kept clean and moral.”
1916: Los Angeles Hires the World’s First Black Policewoman
Born in 1879 — just 14 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States — Georgia Ann Robinson grew up to be the country’s first-known Black policewoman. Robinson, who started as a volunteer as an LAPD jail matron, became a paid officer tackling homicide cases (and others) by 1919. After being blinded by breaking up a jail fight, she was forced to retire and founded the Sojourner Truth Home, a shelter for women and children, and fought to desegregate schools.
What’s a Prison Matron?
In the 19th and 20th centuries, women often served as jail and prison matrons. These women performed many of the same functions that social workers perform today — and then some. Matrons cared for the women and children who found themselves behind bars, typically working around the clock to perform custodial services, supervise inmates, break up fights and enforce rules. Many of the kids in jail were what you may call justice-involved minors or juvenile delinquents today, but children too young to be away from their incarcerated mothers were also behind bars.
1916: Constance, Get Your Gun
Constance Kopp was the first woman deputy sheriff in New Jersey, and officials gave her a gun, a set of cuffs, and a badge — but perhaps most importantly, she received the same amount of pay as her male counterparts did. Kopp had full arrest authority, too, and wasn’t afraid to use it. She arrested a New York City fugitive after a hand-to-hand struggle, ran down a man terrorizing her younger sister, and arrested and convicted a local silk mill owner for sending threatening letters.
1918: The U.S. Gets its First Official Homicide Detective
Mary Sullivan joined the New York City Police Department in 1911, and by 1918, she became the first official woman homicide detective. She also co-founded New York City’s Policewoman’s Endowment Association to lobby for equal pay and better treatment of women on the police force. She went on to lead the Women’s Bureau of the NYPD (as the first woman in the U.S. to do so) and eventually retired in 1946.
1920: North Carolina Employs the Country’s First Woman Sheriff
Myrtle Siler, a 30-year-old woman who came from one of the oldest families in the area, became the United States’ first woman sheriff. The job came on the heels of her work as deputy sheriff, which she performed for eight years. A local newspaper said, “Modest, unassuming and possessing all the graces that adorn the true Southern woman of culture, the new High Sheriff of Chatham stands as a worthy example of the woman of the new day.”
1927: The First Woman District Commissioner of Immigration Comes on the Scene
Anna C.M. Tillinghast, a political activist and suffragist, became the first woman district commissioner of immigration in the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Immigration in 1927. In addition to two terms of four years each at the port of Boston, Tillinghast concurrently served as the commissioner of immigration for New England until 1933. After her appointment, she said, “I am where I am today because I have been intensely interested in the advancement of women, abolishing the unjust conditions which have surrounded her. I have tried to do things at hand to the best of my ability. My ideal is never to be satisfied with anything but the best that can be produced.”
1932: The Bureau of Social Hygiene Publishes The Policewoman’s Handbook
Out of necessity — primarily because women were still so new to law enforcement that they were novelties in most places — the Bureau of Social Hygiene published The Policewoman’s Handbook, which covered everything a woman officer may encounter on the job, from odd situations on patrol to the detention of women and children. The nearly 300-page book was based on real-world knowledge the women of the Detroit Police Department had gained over the previous decade. (And for the record, the Bureau of Social Hygiene lasted from 1911 to 1934. It funded research and tried to influence public policy on issues related to sex, crime and delinquency, and was largely dependent on John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s money.)
1946: LAPD Hires the Country’s First Latina Policewoman
Josephine Serrano Collier paid $1 to apply to become a police officer with the LAPD in 1946 after losing her job at Lockheed when World War II drew to a close. She was one of 200 women who took the entrance test, one of 21 who passed, and one of nine who made it through training. But despite allowing 5% of women applicants through the process, the LAPD didn’t hold a graduation ceremony or give its grads guns. Still, she became the first known Latina policewoman in the U.S., walking a beat undercover in a skirt and high heels; she retired in 1960.
1985: First Woman Becomes Police Chief of a Major City
Penny Harrington became the first police chief of a major metropolitan city when she was named top cop in Portland, Oregon. She began working as a police officer in 1964 and was one of only a dozen women in her department. After leaving her position as chief, Harrington founded The National Center for Women & Policing.
1997: Texas – and the Nation – Hires the First Openly Gay Sheriff
Margo Frasier was the first openly gay person elected sheriff in the United States when she made it to the top of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. (She was also that office’s first woman lieutenant and first woman captain.) She once told a journalist, “I think it’s all just an indication of how when folks get in and do the job and do the job well, that gender or sexual orientation starts to become a real nonissue … One of the things I didn’t want was anybody labeling me as ‘the woman Sheriff’ or ‘the lesbian Sheriff.’ People don’t go around saying ‘the male Sheriff’ or ‘the heterosexual Sheriff.’ You’d never refer to people in those terms.”
2004: The First Asian-American Woman is Named Police Chief of a Major City
San Francisco broke ground after naming Heather Fong police chief; she was the first Asian-American woman in the country to hold that position. Fong, who joined the police force in 1977, served as a police academy instructor, worked as a youth investigator, and eventually worked her way up to chief in 2004. After she retired from SFPD, Fong took a position as the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for state and local law enforcement.
2022: ICE’s New-Hire Rates Reach 25% for Women Deportation Officers and 44% for Women Special Agents
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, participating in the Department of Homeland Security’s 30x23 initiative to increase the number of women in law enforcement recruit classes to 30% by the end of 2023, exponentially increased its new-hire rates for women. In FY 2021, Enforcement and Removal Operations’ new-hire rate for women deportation officers was 6%, and in FY 2022, it was 25%. Homeland Security Investigations’ new-hire rate for women special agents was 18% in FY 2021 and 44% in FY 2022.
The Modern Era of Women in Law Enforcement
Today’s police forces and law enforcement agencies look vastly different than they did in 1845, when women could only serve as prison matrons. They’re a far cry from the early 1900s, when the few women in law enforcement wore floor-length dresses to work, and from the mid-1900s, when women patrolled the streets undercover in skirts and heels.
Today, women like Deportation Officer Jamie, Attaché Diana, Deportation Officer Daisy, HSI acting Deputy Assistant Director Maria, and Deportation Officer Kiara juggle family life and their commitment to justice. They work hard to create balance and diversity. They stride into the office with confidence, knowing that they have valuable contributions to make.
The following sections give you a glimpse into why these women serve — and what being a woman in law enforcement means to them.
Deportation Officer Jamie
“Being a woman in law enforcement means everything to me. I’ve always taken pride in being the best that I can be and representing for all women. I truly believe that becoming a mother and then coming back to this line of work as a law enforcement officer — it shows strength as a woman. I take pride in keeping the public safe and especially in representing for all women. I come from a family of Marines; my dad and both of my brothers have honorably served. I have always been very proud of my family and their commitment to serve this country, and joining ICE is my opportunity to proudly serve and protect this country.”
- Deportation officer
- First woman at the ERO Academy in Glynco, Georgia, to shoot a perfect score of 250 in firearms qualifications
- Earned Top Shooter Award
- Has worked with HSI, CBP, Border Patrol and DEA, and in the Criminal Alien Program Unit
“Being a woman in law enforcement means being part of a community dominated by men yet balanced by females — not by numbers, but by skills. HSI’s women have broken the traditional stereotypes of police forces. ICE has welcomed females in the workforce at all levels, including leadership positions, and that’s meaningful to our agency and the communities we serve. I serve with ICE because I’m a strong believer in our mission of protecting our country and its citizens through the criminal investigations we conduct, domestically and internationally, with the ultimate goal of preserving our national security and safety.”
- Served as an assistant special agent in charge in Miami
- Supervised Investigative Services Group, Cyber Investigations Group and Asset Identification Removal Group
- Served as a unit chief for Joint Task Force – Investigations
- Graduated from the University of Puerto Rico and InterAmerican University
Deportation Officer Daisy
“I started my career with ICE during my senior year of college. Seven years later, I left my young daughter and attended basic training for ICE and graduated as a deportation officer. I serve with ICE so I can serve my country and honor my late brother, who passed away while serving in the U.S. Air Force. As the only woman officer in my family, I take pride in what I do every day and hope to show my daughter that as a woman, there are no limits on what we can do. Being a woman in law enforcement even means we have the ability to encourage other women to join this rewarding career. I was inspired by the female officers in my office, and I hope to do the same for the next generation.”
- Deportation officer
- Started at ICE as an unpaid intern
- Hired at ICE under the Pathways Program
- Serves in Alternatives to Detention Unit
Acting Deputy Assistant Director Maria
“Working in a predominantly male-dominated profession, I’ve never once felt that I wasn’t included, welcomed, or supported by my fellow agents. The challenges I face every day are the same as any man doing the same job. I’ve worked with some highly intelligent agents and analysts who recognized during my career that I had something to bring to the table. I’m happy to say that I have led a career without any incidents where I felt discriminated.”
- Has served with ICE for the past 25 years
- Currently HSI’s acting Deputy Assistant Director for an elite division tackling organized crime
- Manages, directs and coordinates a number of anti-smuggling units
- Has a degree in criminal justice
- Has spoken on the national stage about combating organized retail crime
Deportation Officer Kiara
“Being a woman in law enforcement is powerful. I choose this word because I know it wasn’t easy for me. In fact, when I went to the academy for the first time, I was sent home because I wasn’t able to complete the CTT course — I had no upper body strength. They gave me 90 days to physically train before going back. I was never exposed to physical training (or shooting) the way I was in the academy. Now? It’s my lifestyle. I discovered how determined, physically and mentally strong I actually am. I take pride in being a woman in law enforcement, and I’d love to encourage more women to get into the field, even if they don’t have experience. Women should have confidence and encouragement; women can do it, too!”
- Started as a contractor for ICE
- Worked as an immigration case specialist in the South before becoming a deportation officer
- Earned a degree in psychology and criminology
- Has 4 family members working for DHS: Dad and stepmom with HSI, brother in the U.S. Coast Guard, and aunt with FEMA
- Looks forward to every aspect of her day working for ICE
- 1610: Sir Thomas Gates writes and implements the first legal code in English-speaking America
- 1631: Boston implements its first night watch
- 1636: The Boston town government takes over the night watch
- 1658: New York established its own night watch
- 1700: Philadelphia starts a night watch
- 1838: Boston implements the nation’s first publicly funded, full-time police force
- 1845: Flora Foster appointed as a matron in the New York City Prison
- 1904: Marie Owens served as the first woman police sergeant
- 1908: Lola Greene Baldwin becomes the first woman hired under civil service rules as a full-time, paid law enforcement officer
- 1910: Alice Stebbins Wells joined the Los Angeles Police Department’s Purity Squad
- 1916: Georgia Ann Robinson is appointed to the LAPD and becomes the first Black policewoman in the country
- 1916: Constance Kopp serves as new Jersey’s first woman deputy sheriff and is given a gun, badge and handcuffs, plus full arrest authority and equal pay
- 1918: Mary Sullivan becomes the first woman homicide detective
- 1920: Myrtle Siler becomes the first woman sheriff in North Carolina
- 1927: Anna C.M. Tillinghast named district commissioner of immigration for the port of Boston
- 1932: Bureau of Social Hygiene publishes The Policewoman’s Handbook
- 1946: Josephine Serrano joins the LAPD, becoming the first known Latina policewoman
- 1985: Penny Harrington becomes the first woman police chief of a major city (Portland, Oregon)
- 1997: Margo Frasier is Texas’ first woman and openly gay sheriff
- 2004: Heather Fong becomes the first Asian-American woman to serve as police chief of a major American city (San Francisco) and, in 2014, becomes the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for state and local law enforcement.
- 2022: ICE increases its new-hire rate for women deportation officers from 6% in FY 2021 to 25% in FY 2022, and its new-hire rate for women special agents from 18% in FY 2021 to 44% in FY 2022.
Women: Your Place is With ICE
If you’re interested in a career in law enforcement, special investigations or mission support, ICE is the place for you. Explore ICE’s open job positions at USAJobs now, learn what it’s like working for ICE, explore opportunities for veterans and students, or learn more about how to apply for work with ICE.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is always on the lookout for highly skilled, adaptable law enforcement agents, investigators and support staff. If you have what it takes, we’ll see you soon.