Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.
In May 1922, the British embassy in Washington contacted the Department of State at the direction of authorities in London. The British (“His Britannic Majesty’s Government”) wanted to know about the work of women police in the United States and the embassy asked the Department to obtain that information. Specifically, the British wanted details on:
(1) whether, where women are employed, they form an integral part of the ordinary police establishment, or a distinct organisation under separate control.
(2) their status and powers in so far as these differ from those of the regular police.
(3) The scope and nature of the duties on which they are employed, and whether they are expected to undertake all branches of police work or whether they are only employed for special and limited purposes, or on work that would not normally be performed by male police officers.
(4) Whether it is possible, at this stage, to form any estimate of the value of their services and if so, the directions in which their employment has proved most beneficial.
The Department acknowledged the request and set about securing the information. To do so, it contacted the U.S. Department of Justice and the governors of California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and the Board of Commissioners of Washington, DC. Why it picked those officials is not clear. In each case, the Department forwarded a copy of the British inquiry with the request for information responsive thereto. Subsequently, at the suggestion of the superintendent of the Pennsylvania State Police, the Department sent similar inquiries to the heads of public safety in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Reproduced below are the substantive responses received by the Department. They include reports from the police in Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to which the California governor’s office had forwarded the request. These letters paint a varied picture of women in law enforcement work in the United States of 1922.
The Department of State Police of Pennsylvania and the Department of Public Safety of Philadelphia reported that neither employed women.
As these reports arrived, the Department of State forwarded copies to the British embassy.
All documents mentioned are from the 1910-29 segment of the Central Decimal File, part of Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State. The note from the British embassy bears file number “811.105/17.” Subsequent letters from the Department of State to various governors and law enforcements agencies, replies thereto, and the Department’s notes to the British embassy are in the same file with enclosure numbers “17” through “30.”