No Women Became NYPD Officers Until 1918
This 1908 news photo by Bain News Service shows a Cincinnati suffragette dressed as a policeman. The accompanying captions is “How woman policeman would look making an arrest.” Another photo of the same woman is captioned “the woman cop ‘A Dream.'”
Women becoming police officers in the early 20th century was considered a joke. Well maybe that was the case 100 years ago, but not today. There are now over 6,000 uniformed women police officers in the NYPD and they comprise almost 20% of the police force.
In the early history of the NYPD, women had worked as jail matrons and secretary’s. It was in 1918 that Ellen O’Grady was named a Deputy Police Commissioner and Mary E. Hamilton was appointed a policewoman along with 5 other women.
Some of the original policewomen were assigned to battle the white slave trade (forced prostitution) while other recruits were to work on juvenile delinquency cases.
The policewomen were issued badges, summons books, revolvers and handcuffs. They had the same authority as their male counterparts and surprisingly, received the same $1,200 salary as policemen.
As more women joined the force in the following two years, most of the policewomen were assigned to the city beaches to protect women. Others were given assignments in the Vice Squad, the Missing Persons Bureau and some were to investigate fortune-tellers and midwives.
The way many policewomen thought of themselves reflected the times they lived in.
When Mary Hamilton resigned from the force in 1926, she wrote a letter of resignation to the Commissioner. This excerpt says a lot:
Being the first policewoman to be appointed in New York City, I had to blaze a trail, so to speak,and therefore I sought to establish certain fundamental principles that would be a guide for the future police work of women,
I soon discovered that while a policewoman had the same status and obligation as a policeman, that if she was to be a real factor and help in the community, she could not, by reason of her sex, do the same work that the policeman did: that if she donned a uniform and carried a gun for instance, she was worthless, since for that type of service, one policeman is equal to ten policewomen; that to be an asset to the department, the policewoman, while always cooperating with the men, had to go about her work in a different way, rendering service that the men could not very well undertake. In other words, the policewoman’s field was distinctly crime preventive and protective work with children, girls and women, she being for these purposes kind of a kind of community mother.
The policewomen were not treated as equals and impeded in gaining promotion. It took until 1971 for a policewoman to be promoted to the rank of captain.
And while no one will say it out loud, there are some officers in the NYPD who would agree with Mary Hamilton’s self assessment and wouldn’t mind returning to the pre-1918 gender makeup of the NYPD.