Alice S. Wells: Among First Policewomen
Alice Stebbins Wells (1873-1957) was among the earliest women hired to work in law enforcement in the United States. She urged passage of a law that would let her join the police force in Los Angeles, and in 1910, she was hired as a policewoman.
In addition to her patrol work–walking a beat and checking on entertainment venues where there were likely to be young girls–she was the founder of the International Policewomen’s Association and traveled widely to promote the concept of having more women on staff with law enforcement agencies.
Alice Stebbins Wells was born in Manhattan, Kansas. She was the daughter of well-educated parents, both of whom attended Oberlin College. After her birth, the family moved to Hiawatha, Kansas (about 70 miles north of Topeka), where her father started a local newspaper.
Alice traveled to Atchison for high school (about 40 miles away, so the family either moved, or she stayed with someone in Atchison). After she graduated, she studied at Oberlin College.
By 1900 she was a pastor’s assistant for Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. She was intrigued by religion and wanted to learn more about the philosophy behind it. She enrolled at the Hartford (Connecticut)Theological Seminary where she studied Old Testament history for two years. During this time, she filled in for vacationing pastors at churches in and around Maine, becoming the first woman preacher in that state.
As she developed her philosophy, her expertise became “The Message of the Prophets for Today.” She lectured at Bible schools, chatauquas, and many churches throughout the East and Midwest.
On a trip to Perry, Oklahoma, she was offered a full-time position as pastor of one of the local churches. During that time, she met and married Frank Wells, a pioneer who had moved to Oklahoma from Wisconsin. They had three children.
By May 1910, the Wells family moved to Los Angeles.
Wells Believed Women Belonged in Law Enforcement
Somewhere along the line—perhaps in her work as a pastor—she developed the belief that there were people in need of help in environments where male policemen could not be effective. This sparked the idea that if women were on the police force and patrolled the streets, the dance halls, and the skating rinks, they could more likely help women and children in troubling circumstances.
Alice Stebbins Wells was not the first woman involved in law enforcement. As early as the 1840s, women were hired to work as matrons at the jails to help with the care of women and children who were arrested or brought into the police station for protection. The matrons played a vital role in the system, but they did not patrol, nor did they have the ability to arrest anyone.
Once Wells developed the idea that women should actually be on the police force, she talked to anyone and everyone about her reasons why, and she gained support from community members. By the time her legislative proposal reached the city council, she had popular opinion on her side. The city council had little choice but to enact the law, which went into effect in 1910. On August 13, 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells was hired as the first policewoman in L.A. (Some sources identify her as the first in the nation, but the digitizing of local records has permitted deeper investigation. She was among the first, but others preceded her. These women are mentioned at the end of this article.)
Alice S. Wells: On the Beat in L.A.
Once hired, Alice Stebbins Wells was given a telephone call box key (so that she could report crimes and call for reinforcements), a police rule book, and a first aid book. She also wore a badge. She was not issued a gun or a baton.
The first articles about her said that she would not wear a uniform, and early photographs show here in a lace blouse with a jacket. But Alice Stebbins Wells wanted respect, so she took the issue of her uniform under her own control. She sewed for herself a khaki-colored jacket and long skirt that became her uniform.
Early in her tenure, the first badge issued her was problematic as the public did not understand. Police were given free rides on trolley cars, and one conductor confronted her with fact that there was no such thing as an L.A. Policewoman, and she couldn’t ride for free because she must be using her husband’s badge.
When she brought this problem back to headquarters, it was remedied. She was given a new badge labeled as “Policewoman Badge No. 1.”
Alice Stebbins Wells took her work very seriously and wanted others to take her seriously as well. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said: “This is serious work and I do hope the newspapers will not try to make fun of it.”
The reporters got off to a bumpy start, however. They didn’t know what to call her. Early references in the press describe her as the “first woman policeman,” “Officeress” or “Officerette Wells” Clearly, these were not titles Wells favored. Eventually woman on the force became known as policewomen.
The Los Angeles Herald reported: “Her salary is not as large as a policeman for she will receive but $75 a month, while a policeman receives $102. But she will have to conform to the regulations of the department just like any other member of the force.”
Starting to Patrol
After initially patrolling with Juvenile Officer Leo W. Marden, she created her own systematic method for visiting penny arcades, skating rinks, “picture theaters,” and any place where women and children might be in trouble. She also was charged with being the “purity squad,” and sometimes she would report back to headquarters with information on theatrical shows or billboards that were unwholesome.
At times, she was called into investigations involving children or women. L.A. soon added a law that women in custody needed to be questioned by the woman investigator.
As she settled into the job, she soon saw a need for two types of women’s bureaus that she founded—one that offered help to women in need; another that served as a missing person’s bureau for women and children. In 1917, she and Minnie Barton, the first female parole officer, founded the “Minnie Barton Home” for women just released from jail. Over time, the house began being used as a halfway house where some young offenders were placed instead of being sent to jail. Today this home is part of the Children’s Institute in L.A.
Two years after Wells was hired, the L.A. Police Department hired two more women. And soon sixteen other cities and several foreign countries added women because of her work.
One of her jobs representing the department as a speaker was visiting schools and women’s organizations to talk about social hygiene. In this talk, Wells advocated sex education—a new topic for that day.
In 1913, Los Angeles experienced a rash of robberies, some were done by a group called the boy automobile bandits. Women’s groups began inviting Wells to speak to them about crime and safety.
On August 14, 1913, Wells addressed a group of LA clubwomen to give them tips: “If she has the pluck, when she meets an annoyer or a hold-up man, scream first. Then use the first weapon at hand. Don’t forget the trusty hat pin. That or a few well-chosen jiu-jitsu tricks will help women when sneak thieves arrive or burglars invade the home.
“Remember that a burglar is under greater nervous strain that you are.”
She concluded by reminding audiences that “The weapon nature gave a woman was a scream. But she notes that in more rural communities where someone might not hear you then “It would not be bad to know a few bone-breaking tricks.”
Politically, Alice Stebbins Wells was a firm believer that women working in the home were laboring honorably. But she pointed out that industry would cease if women stopped toiling. Wells felt women supplemented men’s work, they didn’t replace them.
Requests from Elsewhere
Because Alice Stebbins Wells advocated publicly for the need for women on police forces, her office received many inquiries. By 1914, the LAPD permitted Wells to undertake a speaking tour promoting the cause of women in law enforcement. She traveled widely conveying her message.
In Albany in 1914, she addressed the NY Assembly, urging passage of a bill for policewomen. And just as women today find that reporters can’t resist commenting on their clothing or their looks, Wells faced the same thing. A reporter for The Albany Times wrote: “She wore a khaki uniform and a large shield. Her brown hat, with an attractive plume, was distinctly feminine.”
Reaction from the citizens and the press in the locations she visited was very positive. In Toronto, J.A. McCarthy, City Controller, wrote: “Not in many years of social work and interest in social problems have I heard an address so comprehensive, so intelligent and so full of 1913 common sense as that to which we listened last night…
“There is in this day no lack of speakers who criticize, but there is a dearth of speakers who are able to suggest as you did the preventive and educational measures which are practical.” (Jan 14, 1913)
Wells Tireless On Behalf of Her Cause
In May of 1915, she scheduled a conference to organize an international association of policewomen, to work with the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. Policewomen from 14 states came that first year and elected Alice Wells president, a position she held for five years. At the second conference, 22 states were represented. The organization took an official stand on what the women should be called: “Policewoman” was to be used for regularly appointed police officers with the power of arrest.
As she advocated for more policewomen, she realized that women would be better served by specific training since they were not given all the equipment that their male counterparts were. Here, Wells approached the University of California Southern Division (now UCLA) and urged them to offer a course to train women in law enforcement. That class became a reality in the summer of 1918. It was run by the School’s Criminology Department.
Wells was active in many other causes. She founded the Pan-Pacific Association for mutual Understanding in 1924 and this group met regularly. She was also chairman and first present of the Women’s Peace Officers Association. (1928)
She stayed with LAPD until retirement in 1940. Her final position with the department was as curator of the Los Angeles Police Department, a job she took in 1934. She had requested permission to establish a museum within the police dept. (That museum still exists today.)
Wells died in 1957. Her funeral was well attended by all the senior officers in the police department. Her casket was accompanied by a 10-woman honor guard—something that would have made Alice Wells proud.
Alice Stebbins Wells deserves to long be remembered for introducing the concept of women in law enforcement.
Other women who were early police officers:
Marie Owens was hired by the Chicago Police Department in 1891. She had the power to arrest, but her duties were limited to child labor law violations.
Lola Baldwin joined the Portland Police Department in 1908. Prior to that, she headed a team of social workers who helped with moral issues and challenges that arose as a result of the Lewis and Clark Exposition being held in Portland in 1905. Afterward, the police were respectful of the work the group had done and installed Baldwin as the “Superintendent of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Police Department for the Protection of Girls.” She, too, had a badge and the power of arrest but her office was in the local YWCA.