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Social Pioneer and Advocate for Women

March 15, 2019

 

 

Alice Stebbins Wells was born in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1873. 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. There is not much more known about her early childhood but she did attend high school in Atchison which was about 40 miles away from her home, so the family either moved, or she boarded with someone in Atchinson. Upon graduation from high school, she attended Oberlin College as her parents had, where she studied theology and criminology  

 

By 1900 she was the assistant to pastor Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.  She was very intrigued by religion and wanted to learn more about the ideologies and philosophies behind various religions.  She enrolled at the Hartford Theological Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. For two years she studied the history of the Old Testament there.  It was during this time that she became a substitute preacher for pastors at various churches in and around Maine, who were vacationing.  She became the first woman preacher in the state of Maine.  She eventually served as a pastor in Oklahoma.  It has been noted that  while working in the midwest, she became aware with the dismal treatment that women and children received when they were involved in a police case. 

 

She married, but not much is known about her husband, but they did have two children.  They settled in Los Angeles. Armed with the knowledge of the treatment received by women and children at the hands of the police that she had gained in the midwest, she petitioned the mayor and city council to allow women to serve as police officers in her new community of Los Angeles. She was determined to improve the lot of these unfortunates when interacting with law enforcement.  At that time in history, there were female police officers, but they were only employed as prison guards. Her request was granted and she was sworn in as the first policewoman with arrest powers in September 12, 1910.  She received no uniform and no training, and was not entitled to carry a gun as her male counterparts did. She was given a book of first aid, a police rule book, a telephone call box key and a badge.  Wells was responsible for hand sewing her own police uniform, the first in the United States, a floor-length dress and jacket.  She was assigned to go after juveniles at dance halls, skating rinks and penny arcades.  

 

She embraced this work because she reasoned that policewomen were better suited to deal with juvenile and female victims and suspects because they could develop a better sense of trust. The Los Angeles Police Department created a policy that females could only be questioned by female police officers as a result of urging by Wells. By 1912, there were six policewomen in Los Angeles, all doing the same kind of work.

 

People still had trouble believing there was a female police officer. In fact, many thought she had stolen her husband's badge and was pretending to be a police officer by showing it off. This led the police department to issue a special policewoman badge, the "Policewoman's Badge Number One”.

 

Being appointed as the first policewoman with arrest powers, and a “real” badge, was not enough for Wells. Using her public speaking skills from her time as a pastor, she began to travel to different cities, promoting the value of policewomen. Wells believed that women could make juveniles and female criminals feel more comfortable and secure than could male officers, a trend that continues today. As a result of her lectures and public appearances, over a dozen other cities had hired policewomen by the mid-1920s.

 

In 1925 she organized the Los Angeles Policewomen’s Association of California in San Bernadine.  and in 1928 she organized the International Association of Police Women and served as its president for 5 years. She was appointed the Los Angeles Police Department’s official historian in 1934.  Sacrificing her police officer's salary, she traveled across the nation and in Canada to promote her ideas about protecting youths and preventing juvenile crime and to lecture for the need for policewomen. She remained with the Los Angeles Police Department for 30 years until her retirement in 1940 but she continued to lecture on the need for larger numbers of women in law enforcement. .  By the time of her death in 1957, the Los Angeles Police Department had 1513 female police officers.

 

 

 

                            

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