We do not think twice about women serving in various roles of law enforcement today. Their courageous service is lauded and appreciated. What about the woman who started it all? One brave woman paved the way for the legions of female law enforcement officers who serve our communities today. Marie Connolly Owens was part of a large Irish Catholic family from the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago who became Chicago’s – in fact, the world’s – very first female police officer.
Born in Ottawa, Canada, she eventually emigrated to the US with her husband, Thomas. The couple settled in Chicago and went on to have five children before his death in 1888. Charged with raising and supporting her children on her own, Owens found work in the City Health Department as one of only five female factory inspectors. Following her work in this capacity, she was relocated to the Chicago Police Department where she worked to combat unsavory sweatshop abuses where children as young as seven years old worked in substandard conditions for meager pay to help support their poverty-stricken families.
After scoring an outstanding 99% on the civil service exam in 1898, Marie Owens joined the police force as a regular patrolman. This appointment by the Chicago Civil Service Commission is mired in irony since Owen had walked a patrol beat for seven years with the same powers to arrest held by other police officers. Reaching the rank of Sergeant, Owens oversaw the enforcement of child labor and welfare laws after witnessing the sweatshop atrocities mentioned above. She worked tirelessly to give children their childhood back and to provide them and their families with a measure of safety and security. “I like to do police work,” said Mrs. Owens. “It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help.”
Her tough, hard-fought independence gave way to a heart of giving and compassion. At a time when no women were police officers and very few were homeowners, she owned her own home and often gave generously to the poor. She impacted the lives of scores of children and created schools inside department stores so underprivileged child workers could get an education that might one day lead them out of poverty.
Dubbed Sergeant No. 97, Marie Owens retired after 32 years on the police force with an exemplary service record. Unbelievably this pioneering woman faded into obscurity so thoroughly that her own grandson, Owen Parnell Page, knew nothing of the trailblazing life of his grandmother until retired federal DEA agent, Rick Barrett, stumbled upon her police record while researching his own family of police officers and civil servants. For that the world owes him a debt of gratitude.
She is an example for girls with dreams and a role model for women with seemingly impossible aspirations. Her life bears witness to the fact that nothing you aspire to is truly impossible and that helping others can be a valuable extension of your work. We are proud to remove her from obscurity and give Marie Owens the credit she deserves and the recognition her life work demands. She is truly a woman worthy of respect and honor.