After personnel files were put on microfilm at the Boston Police Department in the 1970s, a sergeant detective about to retire dumped a box of women's roster cards on the desk of another, Kim L. Gaddy, saying she didn't have the heart to shred them. "That's how it all started," Dr. Gaddy told a rapt audience at the South End Library on October 16, during the slide show of "Boston's Fairest." With Margaret Sullivan, the BPD's archives and records manager, Dr. Gaddy spent hundreds of hours at Radcliffe's library and the "dank basement" of the BPL, among other places, to document the history of Boston police women.
They only had to go back to the 1920s. The time between the two world wars was one of social change and the 1919 Boston Police Strike had decimated the department. It consisted of "rookies and old men," said Sullivan. In 1921 the first six women who had been allowed to take the entry exam were appointed. They were denied uniforms, weapons, cars and handcuffs. But they had their badge. They'd show it, presumably bark "you're under arrest," and haul the perps to the police station by hailing a cab. More women were hired in the 1940s, including the first African-Americans, among them Dorothy "Harry" Harrison, the daughter of physician Columbus Harrison, who practiced from his home on Chandler Street. "Can you explain why these women were placed in the South End which was one of the most dangerous parts of Boston?" one member of the audience wanted to know. "Because they were good," said Sullivan, "and they knew the district very well."
The BPD remained largely the domain of men. But the perpetrators included women, as did of course the victims of crime. Handling female prostitutes or battered women caused discomfort among male law enforcement. The female recruits were expected to focus on women by protecting them from "mashers" (men who'd harass them) and bring home lost children. They did that --even bought kids ice cream on the beaches of South Boston-- but would land punches, if necessary, with the best of them.
Despite nine decades of proving their worth, the BPD’s percentage of female officers is still only 14 percent, roughly on par with the police departments elsewhere. “Police work has a very macho image but it is 85 percent social work, instead of knocking heads” said Dr. Gaddy, explaining part of the reason why women many not even see police work as suitable for them to this day. Answering another audience question, the speakers affirmed no specific efforts are underway by the BPD to demystify what this profession is all about. "It's hard to get across why police work might appeal to college women" now looking to make career choices, agreed Sullivan. "It's not the only barrier," she said, referring to other disincentives: jobs are not necessarily there right now, you have to be put 'on the list,' you have to live in Boston, there are several tests. "By the time you take care of that, most will have made other choices," she said.
A few years ago, Sullivan helped uncover the history of Boston's first African-American officer in the BPD in 1878, Sgt. Horatio J. Homer. She is currently working on the biographies of some twelve police officers (she calls them her "dirty dozen") who made difficult choices in their careers, including resigning when that was 'the right thing' to do. "It's hard to be a good cop sometimes," Sullivan said. One of her subjects is a former resident of Rutland Square, Captain Francis Wilson, whose father, Butler Wilson, a staunch Republican, helped start the Boston branch of the NAACP.