Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. Back in January I started a series of articles about 10 amazing women who paved the way for females in various branches of law enforcement. If you missed the prior posts you can find them here:
Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton Agent.
Phoebe Couzins, the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Marshall service.
This month I want to talk about Marie Connolly Owens, America’s First Female Police Officer.
Marie was born in Ottawa (then know as Bytown) in December of 1853, to parents who had immigrated from Ireland to escape the potato famine. Little is known about her family or growing up years, but at age 26 she married Thomas Owens and the couple moved to Chicago. There they settled in and over the subsequent years their family expanded to include five children.
Then, in 1988, Marie’s husband died of typhoid fever. Suddenly, at age 35, Marie found herself widowed, with five young children to care for, and no idea how to earn a living.
However, one year later, in 1889 the city of Chicago passed an ordinance that prohibited employing children under the age of 14 unless they were required to work due to ‘extraordinary circumstances’. Marie was one of five women the city hired to help enforce this new ordinance. Their role was that of sanitary inspectors and their job was to monitor conditions in stores, factories and tenements. It is said the city hired women for this job because it was thought they were uniquely qualified to deal with matters involving children.
Marie dove into this role with a particular energy and passion, not only pulling children from these illegal and possibly dangerous workplaces, but even going so far as to help then find alternative means to support their families. In fact, she employed such energy and zeal in carrying out her duties, combined with a depth of diplomacy and effective moderation, that she quickly won respect and recognition for her efforts.
Just two years later, in 1891, her exemplary performance landed her a promotion to a special police officer, known a “Sergeant No. 97”, complete with the salary, badge and rank and arrest authority that went along with that job. Because she was a member of the detective department, she was allowed to dress in “plain clothes” so there was no need to adapt the uniform to accommodate a female form.
In her new role, Marie was assigned to work with the Board of Education to enforce truancy, child labor and compulsory education laws.
But, though she worked in what was considered a man’s world, Marie Owens was not necessarily a feminist. She put it this way.
“I like to do police work. It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help. Of course I know little about the kind of work the men do. I never go out looking for robbers or highwaymen. That is left for the men.” She further stated “My work is just a woman’s work. In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective. Why, it has kept me poor giving in little amounts to those in want. I have yet the time to come across a hungry family that they were not given food.”
Captain O’Brien, her superior officer, was highly complementary of her work, stating on the record
“Give me men like she is a woman, and we will have the model detective bureau of the whole world.”
Then in 1895 Chicago passed new civil service rules that made it nearly impossible for additional women to join the police force. Because Marie had an exemplary record and was so very good at her job, she was allowed to stay on.
In 1914, another female police officer, Alice Stebbins Wells (who I’ll feature in a future post) did a series of tours across the country, making the case for the need to have more female police officers. That, coupled with the numerous newspaper articles written about her, instilled the growing perception that she, in fact, was the first female police officer in the country. Though Marie Owens was still on the police force at this time, there is no indication that she did anything to change this misconception.
Marie was 70 when she finally retired in 1923. She passed away four years later in New York where she had moved to live with one of her daughters. Inexplicably, her obituary had no mention of her groundbreaking service on the police force or other contributions to the city of Chicago. And when a historian confused her with a woman named Mary Owens and described her in his book as a patrolman’s widow, her accomplishments were virtually erased from history. For decades to follow, no one remembered her story.
Then in 2007 Charles Barrett, a former federal agent and historical researcher, stumbled on a mention of Owens as a patrolman’s widow and found some inconsistencies. Digging deeper, he began sorting out the truth of Marie Owens remarkable life and accomplishments.
“She knew about hardship and heartbreak,” Barrett said of Marie. “She was sympathetic to the people because she had walked in their shoes.”
So forgotten was her story, that her great-grandson had never heard anything about his great-grandmother before Charles Barrett’s research brought it back to light. When contacted by telephone, he remarked “All I knew was that my grandfather was from Chicago.”
Thanks to Charles Barrett, we now are able to remember and celebrate this remarkable woman.
There you have it, a very brief sketch of the trailblazing life of yet another ahead-of-her-times woman. What struck you most about her? If you’d already heard of her, did you learn anything new, or do you have more to add to her story?
Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for winner’s choice of any book from my back list.