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Alice Stebbins Wells: Biography

Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

In this lesson, we will discuss the background of the first policewoman with arrest powers in the United States. Following the biographical information, there will be quiz questions to review your understanding.

Background

Today, it's hard to imagine a woman having to fight for the right to work as a police officer. After all, we have law enforcement officials of every sex, gender and creed. But just over a hundred years ago, women weren't allowed to work as officers with arresting rights. That is, until Alice Stebbins Wells came along.

Alice Stebbins Wells was born in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1873. Wells studied theology and criminology, eventually serving as a pastor in Oklahoma. Wells and her husband moved to Los Angeles, and Wells petitioned the mayor and city council to allow women to serve as police officers. At that time there were already female police officers, but they were used only as female prison guards. Wells' request was granted, and she was appointed the first policewoman with arrest powers in September 1910.

Early Challenges

When Wells was first appointed, she did not receive a uniform. She received a badge and other equipment, but 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.

Although she had the power to arrest, Wells was placed in skating rinks, dance halls, and other entertainment areas usually associated with teens and young people. Wells 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 (LAPD) 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.

Alice Stebbins Wells (1873-1957) was the first policewoman in the United States with the power to arrest.
Alice Stebbins Wells.

Spreading the Word About Policewomen

Being appointed as the first policewoman with arrest powers was not enough for Wells. Using her public speaking skills from her time as a pastor, Wells 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.

A policewoman in full uniform in 1918.
Policewoman.

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