Marie Owens was the first female police officer

Published 3:20 pm Saturday, August 22, 2020

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You can learn a lot from television. PBS is a sure way if you want to do that. Xavier Riddle and The Secret Museum was where I was introduced to Marie Owens.

On December 21, 1853, Marie Connelly Owens entered the world in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada born to Irish immigrant parents who had escaped the potato famine. She had a younger brother named Brendan. Later on at the age of 26. Marie wed Thomas Owens in 1879 and they moved to Chicago. While there they eventually, over the span of years, had five children. Unfortunately, Thomas suddenly died at age 35 of typhoid fever in February 1888 and this left Marie with the daunting task of raising her five young children alone with no means to support them.

Subsequently, in 1889 Chicago passed an ordinance which prohibited the employment of children under the age of 14 unless it was of mandatory circumstances in which work was required. Owens was one of five women hired by the city health department to enforce this new ordinance. Their job was that of sanitary inspectors which entailed monitoring conditions in stores, factories and tenements. It was the sentiment that women were uniquely qualified to deal with matters involving children. Marie wholeheartedly, not surprisingly, jumped into the job with an energy and passion to get children out of illegal and dangerous workplaces going so far as to assist them in finding alternative means to support their families. This attitude combined with diplomacy and conflict resolution quickly earned her respect and recognition for her efforts.

While many today in the past few months have sought to demonize the law enforcement community in the United States, in 1891 Marie Owens became the first female police officer in the U. S. and the first one in the Chicago Police Department. Because of her exemplary work was promoted to sergeant. She had a salary, badge and rank and arrest authority. In her work she witnessed children as young as 7 years old working in sweatshops to support their poor families. Dressed in plain clothes, Marie was assigned to work with the board of education enforcing truancy, child labor, compulsory education and welfare laws.

Furthermore, in 1895, Chicago passed new civil service rules that made it difficult for more women to join the force. Could it be the fact that Owens passed the exam with a 99% score? It’s like two steps forward and five steps back. Owens had such a great work record that she was allowed to stay on the force. It wasn’t about being a feminist for Marie but the honor of helping families and children in need. Helping them acquire the necessities of life is what drove this dynamic woman.

Ironically, another female officer in 1914 Alice Stebbins Wells toured across the U.S. promoting the need for more female officers and because of her press coverage many believed she was the first woman police officer in the country and Owens did nothing to change that misconception.

Moreover, this is a woman who not only owned her own home at a time when few women owned homes and no women worked where she worked. She gave of herself to the impoverished. The lady created schools in department stores so child workers could get an education that would enable them to, one day, get out of poverty.

Marie Owens continued on the police force until 1923 when she retired at age 70 but sadly in 1927 at the age of 74 passed on in New York where she had moved to live with one of her daughters. Her obituary did not mention anything about her work on the police force and other contributions she made to the City of Chicago. Marie’s trailblazing would go unnoticed for years until Charles Barrett, a former federal agent and historical researcher in 2007 brought her accomplishments back into the spotlight. Thank God he did.

Marie Owens was a woman who should make Canada and the United States proud with her amazing and  groundbreaking work. She saw her career as a police officer as a way to uplift women and children out of situations that were illegal if not dangerous helping them support their families with education while they were employed in safer places. Just think of the SRO’s in your child’s school-defusing situations and giving children better ways to solve conflicts while showing compassion and understanding along the way. That’s what Marie Owens did.

Marie, we salute you.

Judy Moore is a tour guide with The Central High Museum. She lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at