There have only been a tiny handful of women who have led police departments in various United States communities before 1970. A few of the earliest, dating back to 1910, helped paved the way to other women to serve and protect their communities in later years. These pioneer law enforcement females had their fair share of opponents and faced adversary along the way, but they continued and demonstrated that ladies could hold their own a police officers.
In Los Angeles, California, in late 1909, a woman stepped forward to say she could be an effective policewoman for the city. Los Angeles was a good sized city in the early 20th century and had its share of criminals. Eventually, by petitioning the city mayor, the police commissioner and city council, and a good deal of persuasion, Alice Stebbins Wells, was given the position as policewoman. Not a guard in a woman’s prison, but rather a duty-sworn officer with the L.A. Police Department. She was officially sworn in on September 12, 1910, making her the first certified policewoman in the country. She proudly wore the policewoman’s badge with the number one displayed.
With no formal training and only a first-aid book and her badge, she was assigned to go after the ill-behaved youth in roller skating rinks and dance halls. This 37-year old woman did an outstanding job over the few years. Word of her accomplishments spread across the country. Alice S. Wells was asked to go on a speaking tour across the nation starting in 1915 to promote the hiring of women police officers in other locations. She was founder and the first president of the International Association of Police Women.
In the 1930s Alice made the rank of sergeant and later given the responsible of being the LAPD historian. Wells felt most pleased of the female officers that had been added to the Los Angeles department. By 1937, there were 39 full-time policewomen and five female reserve officers.
Police Officer Sgt. Wells retired from the LAPD in 1940, having served for 30 years. She continued promoting females as officers in the years that followed. By 1957, the city had 1,513 female officers. Alice Wells died in Los Angeles County on August 17, 1957.
Police Commissioner Wilder
In Fargo, North Dakota, in 1919, another first occurred. Kate Selby Wilder was first selected to serve on the city commission of Fargo. She was then selected to be the town’s police commissioner, making her the first female police commissioner in the nation. She was up against a male, J. H. Dahl and won by seven votes.
Kate, born in 1877 in Pennsylvania, had come from a wealthy family and her husband, Frederick H. Wilder was an insurance agent. She had worked for years in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1920, Wilder served as the chairman of the League of Women Voters for Fargo. She proudly stated on her January 1920 U. S. Census form that her occupation was that of police commissioner for the City of Fargo.
Through efforts of Los Angeles’ policewoman Officer Wells, the town of Fargo also added their first policewoman in 1915.
Kate S. Wilder served as Fargo’s Police Commission until 1921. Through the years Kate continued promoting women’s rights and worked with many civic organizations. By 1923 she served as the public health commissioner for Fargo and continued that position to the state level into the 1940s.
Chief of Police Overturf
An early pioneer of female officer became the nation’s first chief of police in December 1920. In the town of Buckner, of Franklin County, Illinois, just outside Benton, Illinois lived Lydia Bowlin Bartow Overturf. She was born in September 1870 in Illinois. In 1893, her first marriage was to John Bartlow and they had a son named, Tony Bartlow, born 1894 and another son, Pete Bartlow in 1903. By the early 20th century, Lydia was a widow. She then married Calvin Overturf of Franklin County in 1906. She and second husband, a farmer, had three sons; William, Sylvester and Woodrow Overturf. By the mid-1910s, Lydia Overturf was a widow again and needed to work to support herself and her young sons. She ran a boarding house which offered a comfortable place for the traveler and good meals.
By 1920, the small mining town of Buckner was having problems. Even with alcohol prohibition the law of the land, most of the miners continued to drink, gamble and be involved in public fighting at all hours in the community. Nothing seems to solve the town’s problems.
It was December 1920 that the Mayor of Buckner, John Mallory, appointed the most no-nonsense individual he knew that of Lydia Overturf to be the new chief of police. The citizens of Buckner were in shock and knew the mayor had gone insane at such action. However, he was serious. He felt Mrs. Overturf was the best person to bring law and order back to Buckner. She was immediately sworn in as the town’s chief of police, which also made her the first one in the nation.
Police Chief Overturf was one tough woman and not afraid to stand up to any person. She would march into a tavern and break up any fight. There was no arguing with her, Lydia just hauled offenders off to jail. She kept the town’s jail cells always full.
In February 1921, when four armed bandits robbed a local a crap game, then shot John Hall wounding him in the arm, Chief Overturf went into action. She immediately organized a posse that pursued the four men several miles into the countryside. Chief Overturf and her posse located two of the bandits hiding in a corn field. They surrounded the pair and a gun battle ensued. Chief Overturf disarmed, arrested and brought the two robbers into town.
It was just such brave actions by this female police chief that gained her national attention by the newspapers. The town of Buckner was proud of its very dynamic female chief of police.
By 1930, Lydia Overturf moved from Illinois to St. Louis, Missouri with her three youngest sons. She had given up her badge to work as a clerk in an office. In St. Louis, Lydia died on January 1, 1936 at the age of 66. She had proven herself and helped paved the way for other women in the future to serve as police officers or police chiefs.
Policing and Gendered Justice: Examining the Possibilities, by Marilyn Corsianos, UTP Higher Education Publisher, 2009, pages 10 -11.
The Edwardsville Intelligencer, Edwardsville, Illinois, December 4, 1920 issue.
Officer Wells (LAPD)