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:
This month I want to talk about Alice Stebbins Wells, another trailblazing female law enforcement officer.
Alice was born in Manhattan, Kansas on June 13, 1873. Her parents were well-educated, both having attended college, and wanted the same for their daughter. As a result, after she completed high school, she too was allowed to attend college, where she studied theology and criminology (what a combination!).
By 1900, at the age of 27, she was serving as an assistant pastor at a church in Brooklyn. This led her to enroll at the Hartford Theological Seminary where she studied for two years. While there she filled in at churches in and around Maine while resident pastors were on vacation. This gave her the distinction of being the first female preacher in that state.
After she left the seminary, she continued to preach and lecture at churches and bible schools far and wide. During one such occasion in 1903, she was offered, and accepted, the role of full-time pastor at a local church in Perry, Oklahoma. While she served there she met and later married Frank Wells. They eventually had three children together.
They stayed in Oklahoma for three years and then moved to Los Angeles. While there Alice became involved in social work and over the next several years began to feel deeply that women should be part of the active police force, and that they play a role as something more than prison matrons and truant officers. As her feelings about this grew, she talked to anyone and everyone who would listen about this and gained growing support for her beliefs from members of her community.
In fact, Alice not only wanted women to be on the police force, she wanted to be one of those women. Nor was she willing to passively wait to be asked. She fought long and hard to make that happen and finally, In 1910 she managed to get the names of 100 citizens on a petition requesting that the mayor, police commissioner and city council appoint her as a police officer. That did the trick and 4 months later, at the age of 37, Alice was appointed as a policewoman.
Like other officers, she was given a telephone call box key, a police rule book, a first aid book, and the badge. She also sewed a uniform of her own design, a floor-length khaki-colored dress and matching jacket. It became the first police woman’s uniform in the U.S. However, unlike her male counterparts, although Alice had arrest powers, she was not allowed to carry a gun or baton.
At that time policemen were allowed to ride the trolley for free. When Alice tried to take advantage of that perk by showing her badge, the trolley conductor accused her of misusing her husband’s credentials. The police department took care of this by issuing her a new badge that was inscribed Policewoman’s Badge Number One.
Getting the public to understand and respect her new position was a sometimes rocky undertaking.
Some of her first duties included the enforcement and oversight of laws relating to “dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades, picture shows, and other similar places of public recreation.” She was also to work on the “suppression of unwholesome billboard displays, searches for missing persons, and the maintenance of a general information bureau for women seeking advice on matters within the scope of police departments.”
And even news reporters didn’t know how to refer to her. Rather than using the term policewoman, early articles used phrases such as the “first woman policeman,” or “Officerette Wells” or as an “Officeress”.
And of course, being a woman, her pay was less than her male counterparts – she received $75 a month while policeman on the same force received $102.
Alice wasn’t satisfied with breaking ground as a policewoman. As her career progressed, she saw a need for different types of women’s organizations, and took the initiative to found them. One of these offered aid to women in need. Another served as a missing person’s bureau for women and children. Then she combined forces with Minnie Barton, the first female parole officer to create the Minnie Barton Home for women newly released from prison. This eventually transitioned into a halfway house and an alternative to jail for some very young offenders.
Alice was a strong public advocate for having more women on the police force. Because of that and the publicity she received, her department received numerous requests for information on the subject. In fact, they received so many of these inquiries that the LAPD sent her on a speaking tour across the country, where she stated her beliefs that more women police officers would provide a number of benefits, including better social conditions, safer streets and neighborhoods, and an increase in the overall welfare of cities where they served.
A fine orator, she received very positive reactions from both the public and the press in most places she visited. By 1916, her campaign promoting the need for female officers were deemed to be a driving force in the hiring of policewomen in at least 15 other cities and a number of foreign countries.
Some of her other accomplishments
- In 1914, she was the subject of a biographical film entitled The Policewoman.
- In 1915 she organized the International Association of Policewomen. The first year, the conference attracted policewomen from 14 states and Alice was elected president, a position she held for five years
- In 1918, as a direct result of Alice’s urging, the University of California Southern Division (now UCLA) Began offering a course to train women in law enforcement. It was run by the School’s Criminology Department.
- In 1924 she founded the Pan-Pacific Association for Mutual Understanding.
- In 1925 Alice organized the Los Angeles Policewomen’s Association
- in 1928 she was instrumental in the creation of the Women Peace Officers Association of California in San Bernardino and was named its chairman and first president.
In 1934, Alice was appointed as the Los Angeles Police Department’s official historian—she had requested permission to establish a museum within the LAPD. (That museum still exists to this day) She held that position until she retired in 1940, after 30 years of police service. Even then, she continued to lecture on the need for more women to enter law enforcement.
Alice died in 1957. As a tribute to her contributions and well-earned respect, her funeral was attended by all the senior officers in the police department. Her casket was accompanied by a an honor guard of 10 policewomen—something that would have made Alice S. Wells VERY proud.
Special Note: For decades, Alice Stebbins Wells was thought to be the first U.S. policewoman with arrest powers. However, unreliable record keeping coupled with more recent and extensive research techniques have recently challenged this assumption, uncovering two other women who are possible candidates for the same title. Regardless of the truth of this matter, there is no doubting that Alice deserves to be remembered and honored for her contributions to history.
There you have it, another very brief sketch of the trailblazing life of a brave and 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?