More than a century ago, a debate about the ethics and authority of law enforcement began in Seattle as citizens, mainly women, voiced concerns about the abuses of power committed against women and girls in police custody. At the time, women had begun to capitalize on their status as "moral authority" in the public sphere through the Woman's Club movement. One priority was ensuring protection for "the gentler sex" in the state's criminal-justice system. Prior to World War I, the work done by women in law enforcement resembled more closely the work of a social reformer than that of the uniformed officer patrolling the streets. As cities grew in the twentieth century, so did the faith vested in female police officers.
"Fallen" Women, Abusive Men
The commonly held belief in the late nineteenth century was that most women who found themselves in police custody were of such poor moral character that they didn’t deserve special consideration. In Seattle, it was assumed that "fallen women" made up the bulk of those detained. Though they were pious subscribers to the values of "true womanhood," members of the Seattle chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were drawn to the challenge of elevating the "wretched" men and women of the city by "extending to them the hand of fellowship and aiding them to return to moral and virtuous pursuits" ("White Ribbon Work ..."). One such member was a Mrs. N. Ryther, who was known for embedding herself in "dens of infamy and vice," extending her friendship, and inviting women to abandon their sordid circumstances. She was said to have rescued 19 girls from the "slums," "seven of whom are now engaged in honorable work in this city" ("White Ribbon Work ...").
It was humanitarian encounters such as these that motivated WCTU members to advocate for the safety and dignity of any woman, regardless of moral circumstance, who came in contact with police. In 1889, the WCTU of Spokane petitioned the city council for the installment of a jail matron "to prevent sexual advances on women inmates by male wardens" ("Women's Club Movement in Washington"). Reports from the east side of the state spread, insinuated abuses by uniformed "doormen" (jailors) who took liberties when searching female prisoners upon arrival and throughout the length of their internment in the city jail.
Just as elsewhere in Washington, Seattle had no designated area for women, nor a protocol to ensure their safety when in custody. Often, police transported women without shoes to Issaquah, where they were deposited in the hope of ridding the city of their nuisance. Those warranting detention were placed according to the officer's discretion. The effort to introduce a matron in the Seattle Police Department was met with predictable opposition. A letter submitted to the mayor and the Committee of Health and Police by the Seattle WCTU in 1891 reads: "We ladies of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in presenting the petition wish to recommend one of our members, Mrs. Jaycox, as a very capable and suitable person for the office of Police Matron. Should the petition be granted. She does not seek the office for a mercenary purpose, but hopes through it to be able to lift up some fallen women and help her to a better life" ("Petition ..."). The Committee answered that it did not "feel justified in creating any more offices while the finances of the city are in so deplenished a state" ("Petition ...").
The Tacoma Chapter of the WCTU had concentrated its efforts on petitioning the Washington State Legislature to require the installation of police matrons across the state. In 1893, the mission came to fruition in the form of Senate Bill No. 69. It was published and signed into law as Chapter XV of the session, stating: "That there shall be annexed to the police force of each city in this state having a population of not less than ten thousand inhabitants, one or more police matrons who, subject to the control of the chief of police or other proper officer, shall have immediate care of all females under arrest and while detained in the city prison until they are finally discharged therefrom" (Session Laws, pp. 24-25).
Emma Taylor Makes History
In practice, these new matrons were always on-call, like a physician might be, and typically the head of her own household, often a widow. She was expected to respond to the police station whenever a female was detained, and assume them into her care. Though honorable and necessary, the job of matron was "far from pleasant." They were often most needed in the middle of the night, and "as a rule, the women who are arrested by the police late at night are either intoxicated or in a mood when adjectives are not spared" ("For Police Matron ...").
The position of Seattle police matron was hotly contested and desired by several women who sought the post either as a source of pride or out of financial necessity. One such applicant, Cordelia M. Martin, petitioned the mayor for the job, stating that she had enough experience to warrant the role, was a long-time resident of Seattle, had "four children to support and am dependent upon the labor of my hands for my daily bread" (General File 993285). The job went to Emma Taylor, a dressmaker and widow, age 44. Taylor was slight at 5 feet 4 and 114 pounds. She was described as being "kind-hearted, considerate and painstaking" in the discharge of her duties. She was known to provide the "unfortunate" women in her care with clothing, combs, and towels of her own collection. She gave them streetcar fare out of her salary of $30 a month ("Women of Early Seattle"). "She oft-times looks after them at her own home and sees that they are properly fed and looked after. Women generally are said to require more attention than men, and the female prisoners who find their way into the police station are no exception" ("She Will Escape ...").
Taylor cared for roughly 180 women and girls in 1895 alone, opposite 44 male patrol officers and three detectives. The understanding of the matron’s role was flimsy, and the extent of her responsibility was left to her own interpretation until the third year of her initial four-year term. An incident while she was shopping with her daughter downtown brought about an abrupt shift in her understanding of the job.
Upon entering a store, Taylor had noticed two young women that she considered suspicious. "Mrs. Taylor has detective instinct about her. When she enters a store or any place of business, it is as natural for her to size up the people present as it is for a horse to eat hay when it is placed before him" ("The Role of Old Sleuth ..."). Taylor proceeded to buy some ribbon that was packaged and placed in a box on the counter. After browsing dresses at the other end of the store, she turned to find the package missing. She saw the two women scurrying away down Pike Street into another shop and took off in pursuit. She followed the women from shop to shop, observing their hasty exit as they regarded her approach. She concluded that they were indeed guilty, but hesitated, doubting that she could go any further. The women dissolved into a crowd.
Taylor felt compelled to clarify what course she should have taken. At the police station, Captain Sullivan, the acting Police Chief, confirmed that "Mrs. Taylor had authority to make arrests the same [...] as has any other member of the police force" ("The Role of Old Sleuth ..."). He reminded her that it was her duty to apprehend the criminals. Taylor is believed to be the first Washington police matron given permission to investigate and make arrests.
The state law requiring matrons didn't specify the extent of their authority, giving each police department freedom to interpret the role. In her 1895 Matron’s Report, Taylor wrote about the breadth and weight of her responsibilities, as well as the compassionate nature of her approach: "Young girls on the brink of ruin must be reproved, advised and governed, they require kindness, firmness and discretion. The sick, poor and demented are those who demand our special regard, solicitude and sympathy. We must overlook the abuse of the rum crazed and pity their condition" (1895 Matron’s Report).
The abuses Taylor suffered were not limited to the rum-crazed or belligerent prisoners who fell under her supervision. In her report, she illustrated a certain institutional neglect of her duties. She made the case for basic necessities such as a telephone to communicate with the police station. In the absence of a telephone, she asked for a room at the station, so that she might always be available. She outlined the expense and financial burden of having to pay for her own transportation to various parts of the city. This appears to be the first and last published Matron's Report of its kind, giving the matron a narrative platform to advocate for her needs. Taylor did, however, offer a glowing review of her treatment as matron, with special mention of the prisoners themselves. "[They] appreciate that there is a woman to care for them," she wrote (1895 Matron's Report).
Taylor served seven years as the sole matron in the Seattle Police Department. She died at her home at 5th and Yesler at the age of 53.
An Evolving Role
Mary Jane Kelly succeeded Taylor as matron in June 1904. Much like her predecessor, she was expected to house detained women and children in her home, given the ongoing lack of adequate facilities in the city. Kelly was believed to be "one of the best-loved members of the police force of Seattle" during her tenure. She received in her "little cottage" across from city hall "girls who are underage, women of comparative refinement and runaways and truants" (Kahlo, 89-90). In addition to her role with the Seattle Police Department, she was matron for the county jail, a role for which she received no compensation.
With the explosion of Seattle’s population following the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and the requirements for more humane treatment posed by the influence of progressive reformers, the growing need for matrons became apparent. In 1910 and 1911, the department appointed three matrons in addition to Kelly -- Faye Hicks, Hennrietta Barry, and Nana Atkinson.
The role of matron continued to evolve and diversify with the inclusion of Depot and Courtroom Matrons. In addition to the care and safe-keeping of vulnerable detainees, Susan E. Stine, "Depot Matron" of Union Station and the King Street Depot, was charged with preemptively securing "unattended girls who might possibly stray into the hands of men or women who are looking for just such opportunities for luring away attractive young women" as well as "children who happen to get [caught] straying away from their guardians" (Kahlo, 90). Stine was described as "motherly" with a kindly way about her. Her station situated her at the crossroads of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, providing proximity and ample opportunities to intercept wayward youth or give directions and help to needy travelers.
The Woman’s Division
In 1914 came the first reported mentions of a women’s portion of the city jail and a designated "Woman’s Division" in the police department. At the outset of World War I, police work was modernizing, becoming standardized, and beginning to embrace the "broadening of police functions." Chief of Police Austin E. Griffiths referenced the need for greater numbers of women on the force, believing "in the need and usefulness of women police" (1914 Annual Report).
A clear change occurred in the matron's job description, from one who provides a safe place to stay, to an entire division of matrons on patrol, eliminating the source of the depravity for which these women and children fell victim. Like a uniquely moral task force, "The Night Patrol" came into existence in the 1920s. It was made up entirely of female patrol officers whose apparent focus was the health and safety of Seattle’s youth. The offenses most frequently encountered by the Women’s Division were incidents of "Immorality, Incorrigibility, Drink, Neglect or Abuse, Protective, Traffic and Attending Public Dances" (Woman’s Division 1926 Annual Report). "These night women are on the street until 8:00 AM. They visit the dance halls, cooperating with the supervisor of dances in maintaining order, and in the protection of juveniles. They have visited the Moving Picture Theaters, working with the censor guard in uncovering and correcting irregularities. Their frequent appearance at downtown amusement centers acts as a deterrent to offensive situations" (Chief of Police, 1925 Annual Report). The Women’s Division was its own self-regulating agency until it was absorbed into the general police force in 1930.
From the organized efforts of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1880s, armed with only pen and petition, to the uniform and badge of Seattle’s twentieth century policewomen and matrons, the advancement of women in law enforcement remains a critical piece of the city’s social history. Those in command acknowledged the need for women in police work, though the recognition of their needs and the toll of the matron position were seldom recognized. World War I broke down many assumptions about the type of work that women were expected to do. This was demonstrated by the dramatic uptick of women in police work after 1914, and the continued growth following the war.
Today, the Seattle Police Department references its own underrepresentation of women in law enforcement, with only 15 percent of the force composed of women as of 2022 (a situation they are hoping to correct with added incentives and schedules that better accommodate caretaking needs). Historically, women were inspired to policing because they believed that they alone could serve and protect the city’s most vulnerable. This suggests that a more urgent message emphasizing a woman’s unique contributions and effectiveness would inspire more to a job that can be far from pleasant but is always in demand.