Women Step Up
In 1895, Mary Fields became the first African American, and the second woman, to carry the U.S. Mail. Mary was known as a person with “a bad attitude and two guns”. Mary protected and defended, with a vengeance, that which had been placed in her care. She did so in an era of prolific lawlessness and violence. Perhaps Fields was not “hired law enforcement,” but like many other women of her day, she stepped up to what was commonly a “men only” and did it well.
Over thirty years before, while Mary Fields was still a slave, Kate Warne faced the challenge of living without a man in a man’s world. Widowed at 23, Kate was left without means of support. Setting aside jobs most common to widows, cleaning, laundry, or someone else’s children, Fields marched with determination into the National Detective Agency in answer to an ad for new detectives. With some persuasion, Allan Pinkerton hired Fields, later admitting the value of a female detective. Fields proved herself within the ranks of the Pinkerton Agency, helping to solve many cases, helping to thwart an attempt on Abraham Lincoln’s life, and rising to the position of superintendent of the additional women Pinkerton had hired. She remained head of the women’s unit for 13 years. The door was open by the later half of the nineteenth century and many women would accept the challenge of law enforcement.
In 1884, Phoebe Couzins was appointed deputy U.S. Marshall by her father, John, who was the U.S. Marshall in eastern Missouri. Phoebe Couzins, one of the first woman lawyers in the U.S., Phoebe became the first woman Marshal upon the death of her father. Upon her replacement, she continued to be involved in politics, fighting against Prohibition. Among other nineteenth century law women were Mrs. F. M. Miller, appointed as a Paris, Texas deputy in 1891 and Ada Carnutt, appointed deputy in Oklahoma. Both women were described as tough and capable. In 1897 Claire Ferguson, one of the most famous female deputies was appointed in Utah. Ferguson would prove that being a woman was not a hindrance, nor did she have to give up her “feminine” ways. At just 21 when she joined the ranks of law enforcement, Ferguson enjoyed needlepoint and other pastimes of shared by women of her age, all the while knowing she might be called on to weld a gun and or facilitate executions. Ferguson was quoted in the Washington Standard as declaring:
“I know also that events may come up at any time which may place me in dangerous places, but I am willing to take my chances. Why should I fear more than the men? The duties of the sheriff’s office must be performed, and if a woman has the proper amount of self-reliance and energy, I do not see why she should not be perfectly able to carry out the orders as well as a man. I feel that I can, and I am going to strive during my term to perform my duties faithfully and without shirking the unpleasant portions of the work.”
Though history uses such words as hardcore, tough, or “gun-totin’” to describe many of the early women of law enforcement, the other, softer, side was recognized as well. Women were used in many areas to supervise or care for female prisoners and children. An article written by Betsy Brantner Smith explains, the “advantages” of having both male and female officers is the “synergy that develops when the gifts and talents of these crimefighters is combined”. In the same way that pioneer women left their kitchens to tax themselves behind a plow, hunt for meat, run a general store, or wash pound after pound of miner’s filthy clothing, women who served, and continue to protect and serve, the citizens of the United States do not shun responsibility. Their efforts continued to grow as the nation moved from the Wild West into the modern and exciting twentieth century.
As the century turned, ideas of the place women held became evident in the service of law. Their place in law enforcement was largely relegated to those areas which fit their tender temperament; in other words, focus on nurturing. More often, women were given positions of authority over young people and prostitutes. Additionally, women who desired a career in law enforcement had to face the public opinion they were taking jobs away from men who needed to support their families. During the early part of the twentieth century law enforcement began to evolve into a crime fighting organization rather than a moral compass, yet women still stepped up and stepped in to take positions wherever possible. In 1910, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) accepted Alice Stebbins Wells as the first woman to work alongside male officers on patrol. In 1918, LAPD again made history when they hired Ann Robinson as the first black woman to serve as a police officer in the U.S. Meanwhile, back in Texas, Emma Daugherty Banister became the first appointed female sheriff, taking her husband’s place upon his death. Also noted in the Handbook of Texas online, activist Erminia Thompson Folsom became the first female deputy constable in Travis County in 1920. In Milam County, Sara White, stepped in to complete her husband’s term when he “left to do his Patriotic duty during World War II”.
Women have also achieved success in the Texas Rangers. According to Texas Rangers Research Center at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, “women were also commissioned as Special Rangers in the 1920s – 1940s, with one even commissioned to serve as a Mansion Guard at the governor’s mansion.” Among these were Sgt. Marrie Garcia, who was appointed as the first woman ranger in 1993 and the first black woman to be a Texas Ranger, Christine Nix, appointed in 1994. In 2014, Wende Wakeman was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, “making her the highest-ranking female in Texas Ranger history.”
Women in and around the Panhandle have been, and continue to be, a significant part of the law enforcement community. Fannie Pipes, in Gray County, completed her husband’s term from March of 1934 to January 1, 1935. The second woman serving Gray County was Roberta Talley, appointed in 1938. Carol Deberry, in 1974, became the first commissioned female officer in Plainview. In 1984, Lisa Cherry became the first African-American female police officer in Amarillo. Armstrong County, in 1994, was home to the first woman to be elected Sheriff in the Texas Panhandle, when Carmella Jones was unanimously elected to follow Kenneth Dye who had resigned. Eileen Ciampoli has the distinction of being the first full-time deputy in the Bailey County Sheriff’s Office. In the Amarillo Police Department, Susan Smith is the first woman to receive the rank of Lieutenant and Elizabeth Brown is the first female shift Commander and in 2016, became the first female police officer promoted to Captain. Lisa Dawson achieved the same success in Potter County, adding Captain to her title in 2013. Jerri Lynn Lucero was the first female Deputy in the Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office in 2007. Maribel Tiarzon was named interim chief of Moore County in 2016, and Fleta Barnett is the current Sheriff of Armstrong County. Canyon Police Department employs women in animal control, and administrative offices. In addition, there are two female patrolmen, J’taun Sanchez and Kayla Davis.
The research for this paper revealed more names than is possible to include. To provide complete coverage of the number of women, past and present, who step up to serve their communities, state, and country would take hundreds of pages and all of them have something in common – numerous challenges. Among the challenges, though not all inclusive, are stereotyping, unequal status and opportunity, lower wages, lack of acceptance by male counterparts, and sexual harassment. Despite these challenges, up to 17% of selected forces employ women who meet the challenges with determination and pride. More pages of statistics and data could have been included; however, statistics can be found all over the internet by even the most novice researcher. One of the most interesting things in this research is the vocabulary used to describe the women who work in law enforcement and how these women describe their job.
Positive descriptions such as fearless, strong advocate, brave, generous natured, and committed, help to offset negative comments like harsh, over-stepping, over-confident, weak, and too emotional. When asked to describe their job in law enforcement, women’s vocabulary went from fun, interesting, fulfilling, and exciting, to gut-wrenching, debilitating, heart-warming, satisfying, terrifying, and treacherous. It is important to remember that each name, each fact you find, and the numbers quoted in pages of statistics represents a woman accepting serious challenges to successfully perform in a difficult and often unappreciated occupation.
Officer and author, Sergeant Betsy Smith elaborates that the story of women in law enforcement is an ever-evolving story:
“There are many stories of women who helped shape our profession – some are famous, others are infamous, and still others are women whose stories are not widely known but are fascinating nonetheless. Further, there are countless stories right now being written by the women law enforcers patrolling the streets across this great nation.”
The history and continuing presence of women in law enforcement is a story worth the time to research. Anyone interested in history will find the stories of these brave women a captivating endeavor.
Washington Standard. Olympia, Washington 22 Apri 1898, page 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
Betsy Brantner Smith. “Police History: The evolution of women in American law enforcement.”
Lynna Kay Shuffield. “Women Sheriffs in Texas.” Taylor Daily Press, 18 October 2001.
“DPS Promotes Texas Ranger Wende Wakeman.” Texas Department of Public Safety, July 17, 2014.
Betsy Brantner Smith. “Police history: The evolution of women in American law enforcement.” PoliceOne.com, 2019.