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When D.C. issued its first women’s police uniforms in 1972, the getup included some accessories not ordinarily associated with cops. The pants didn’t have pockets, for example, unlike the men’s. But the outfits did include a pair of black patent-leather heels from Hahn’s. The heels must have matched nicely with the department-issue black leather handbag—with plenty of space for change, lipsticks, and, oh yes, handcuffs. Inside the bag’s middle pocket was a smart little holster meant to hold a revolver.

The revolver handbag was at once proper—what kind of woman doesn’t carry a handbag?—and absurd: It’s hard to imagine any officer having time to open up a purse and extract her piece under duress. Even though the purse appeared 54 years after women first entered the Metropolitan Police Department, it was an apt symbol for what had always been their oddly idealized role in law enforcement.

Technically speaking, D.C. was a national model for introducing women into a police force. In 1918, for example, the District became one of the first cities in the country to create a women’s division. In 1972, it became the first city to put a significant number of women on patrol, in uniform, where people could see them. But women’s relationship with the force was much more complicated than the impressive series of “firsts” would suggest.

Until the uniform appeared, for instance, women wore their own suits with skirts, hats, and gloves. “Dare you come to work without stockings on, no matter how hot it was,” remembers retired Deputy Chief Joyce F. Leland, a police officer from 1965 to 1996. “We would be cussing and carrying on in these nice gloves,” she laughs.

Before the separate Women’s Bureau dissolved in 1967, policewomen had drivers to take them from one call to the next. Of course, the dispatcher could not send a woman on calls like every other officer—her supervisor had to approve any requests first. And the women carried guns and badges that were significantly smaller than the men’s.

Members of the Women’s Bureau weren’t included in the force out of any lofty notions of equal opportunity. It was exactly because women were considered so different from men that they were allowed to join, and only in an entirely unique division of the department with its own distinct duties. Women, with their presumed sensitivity and alleged superior morality, were hired to play streetside matrons, setting women and children who misbehaved back on to the right track. Says Leland: “We were really social workers with guns.”

Three-and-a-half decades after Leland joined the force—and 80 years after D.C. hired its first women officers—the department is abuzz with talk of community policing and the importance of officers’ personal involvement. No one has mentioned that D.C. police officers, at least some of them, once used very similar tactics to those of bona fide social workers. Meanwhile, most of the veterans of the Women’s Bureau have died or retired to Florida, taking their stories with them.

In 1918, D.C.’s appointed leaders and its police chief sat down for a wrenching personnel meeting. The topic of the meeting was so contentious that it necessitated calling President Woodrow Wilson away from his ordinary duties—which at the moment included World War I. The crucial matter of state at hand? Giving police badges to women.

The problem was simple: The department needed officers to keep track of juvenile cases. Women had already been serving as matrons in the prison system, but they had never been sworn officers. Now, with war eating into its supply of male recruits, the department decided to set up a full-blown Women’s Bureau to keep the youth in line. The 30 or so officers’ duties would include interviewing all unwed pregnant girls to offer guidance and determine if they were rape cases. The officers would also patrol areas like railroad stations and moving-picture houses to prevent “wayward girls” from being lured into “immorality.”

Capt. Rhoda J. Milliken headed the Women’s Bureau throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Milliken was not exactly your standard nightstick-wielding copper: She had attended finishing school and Barnard College before joining the force in 1919. She called suspects arrested by her officers “clients.” Like the other leaders of the bureau, Milliken was a lady through and through. And it was her “feminine” characteristics that gave her a license to be there.

A 1937 Washington Star profile of Milliken describes the most nonthreatening of women: “Washington’s No. 1 policewoman, Capt. Rhoda J. Milliken, head of the Woman’s Bureau, is the direct opposite of the public conception of a policewoman. Held in high esteem by her subordinates, she is known affectionately as ‘Milly’ by many of them….No forbidding air has she, but a pleasant and approachable manner, that sets all comers at ease.”

The story goes on to applaud Milliken’s cheerleader qualities—counterintuitive for someone in a job that was thought to attract Amazonian recruits. “It’s hard to envision this slight, blond young woman, attired in modish tweeds, meting out the law in a heavyhanded fashion.”

The light-handed reputation was the result of a carefully cultivated image. Milliken may have been a pioneer, but she was no radical. In 1938, after a visit to London, she pooh-poohed the Brits’ decision to uniform their female officers. “I don’t think our Americans would like being investigated by a woman with a police uniform,” she sniffed, according to a Washington Herald account.

In fact, the women’s dress suited their main role as moral guardians. In the late ’20s, women officers routinely copied down license plates of catcalling drivers and then sent finger-wagging letters home to their wives. In the ’40s, Milliken sat down for heart-to-hearts with drunken women delivered—in limousines, cabs, and ambulances—to the bureau late at night. Her officers also watched films and plays to determine which should be censored. If appropriately shocked, they could fine or imprison proprietors. (Even under Milliken’s prudent watch, though, they occasionally came under criticism from moralists convinced they were too tolerant of bawdy entertainment.)

Milliken may have charmed the press with her demure profile, but her Women’s Bureau remained low on the funding totem pole. Congress routinely vetoed attempts to increase its budget and authority. At one point, the founder of the bureau—one Mina C. Van Winkle—was forced to sublet her apartment and move into the bureau’s offices to save money. The women routinely complained of filthy conditions and overcrowding in the building—which also served as housing for juvenile delinquents.

And with folks like Milliken at the helm, it’s no surprise that things didn’t much change from that underfunded, genteel status quo in which women cops were really glorified social workers. Until 1969, the department continued to require female applicants to have college degrees. The men, meanwhile, needed only high school diplomas—but then again, they were instruments of brute force. The women were specialized counselors.

Leland joined the force after graduating from Howard University with a degree in sociology in 1965. She wanted to be a social worker, but the cops were paying more. And growing up in Northeast D.C., she’d always had a fascination with Dragnet. This way, she could hold on to her dreamy notions of social uplift—as she had been implored to do at her all-girls Catholic high school—while carrying a badge and pulling in a decent salary.

When the Women’s Bureau was abolished in 1967, the department—and some of the women—resisted the notion that female cops should do more than keep the city safe from the wayward and the young. That year, Leland and her peers simply moved over to the Youth Division—which included men, but handled many of the same tasks the women had been doing.

In 1969, Police Chief Jerry Wilson declared that women would do the same jobs as men within the department. Partly because Title VII of the Civil Rights Act would soon leave him no choice, Wilson opened up every slot to women except for the ones requiring uniforms. But as they spent more time on the streets, their tweed suits were starting to prove cumbersome. During the 1968 riots, for example, retired Officer Susan Rodill remembers she had to wear a Metropolitan Police Department Boys and Girls Club jacket to differentiate herself from the looters. Another time, when she tried to get away with wearing culottes, she was rebuked. “We couldn’t wear anything really practical,” she remembers.

Yet when it came time for the women to propose a uniform design, they came up with a red A-line dress and jacket. Wilson immediately rejected the notion, telling the Washington Daily News that he “didn’t want anyone looking like an airline hostess directing traffic.” (Leland jokes that the female officer who designed it “had a figure” and chose accordingly.) Once they had their uniforms—navy wool suits with ties and optional pants, much like the men’s uniforms—women were free to do all jobs within the department. In January of 1972, Shirley L. Brown became one of the first female patrol officers in the United States.

It didn’t always go smoothly. While a lot of women—like Leland—were itching to get onto the streets, others balked at the thought of giving up their desk jobs and daytime shifts. Still others left the department for jobs as teachers, nurses, and social workers. “They all quit because they did not want to do patrol. They felt they had college degrees and they didn’t come on to do patrol,” Leland says, recounting how about two dozen of her approximately 40 colleagues left the force during the transition.

In the transition period, any time women officers merely did their jobs it made the news. In May of 1972, Officer Joyce Hicks’ ear got cut while she was trying to stop a fight. The incident made the Washington Post, under the headline “D.C.’s Finest Slug It Out Like Men.” That same month, Sgt. Romaine Jenkins disarmed a man with a gun, and the Evening Star considered it news: “Sergeant’s No Sissy, She Took His Gun Away.”

Even after they became less of a spectacle, many policewomen continued to play old-fashioned roles. “A lot of times we get shuffled into administrative jobs because we have strong administrative skills,” says Cathy Lanier, 31, the current inspector and commander for the citywide narcotics unit. “As the commander of this unit, I still have to tell people that I am not a secretary.”

Leland’s trajectory up through the ranks included a stint as the department’s first woman deputy chief—in charge of the 7th District in Anacostia—but today, her successors say they’re still looking for role models. “When I first joined the department nine years ago, there were not a lot of female mentors left in uniform,” Lanier says. When Leland left the department, she says, she worried about the women officers who stayed behind. “They always had someone to look after them,” she says, referring to herself and other ranking women who had served as the informal grievance counselors for the officers. “Now they have no one. And it’s a lonely job.”

For her part, Leland has happily embraced some of the department’s old assumptions about badge-carrying women in her retirement. In January, she received her Ph.D. in psychology at the Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. At age 57, she is making plans to start a new career, in some other form of social work.CP