The Origin of the Police Matron
As part of my research for the THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC, I dug up the memoirs of a police matron who served in Rhode Island from 1893 to 1903 and beyond. It's called TEN YEARS IN THE LIFE OF A POLICE MATRON. Mary A Jenks wrote it, and you can get it for FREE if you sign up for my mailing list. Although this book describes the situation in Rhode Island, and THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC is set in Los Angeles, coupled with other sources, it paints a picture of what it was like to be a matron in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mary Jenks's account of life at the police station and in the jails is rather santitized, but that's typical of many books of the time. It's polite and inoffensive, and you have to read between the lines. Luckily, the women who fought to get matrons involved in law enforcement were more forthright in their testimony in the courts and before polical bodies. A great many incarcerated women were mentally ill, drunk, or simply homeless. Before there were police matrons, male officers searched these women. Women and men weren't always kept in separate areas of the jails. Female prisoners were often sexually assaulted by jailers, arresting officers, and even male inmates. They were used to clean the prisons and do other "women's work." Mary doesn't mention this, likely for political reasons.
Various women's groups banded together to push for the hiring of police matrons to protect vulnerable female prisoners. The ladies of the Women's Christian Temperence Movement (WCTM) routinely visited women in the prisons who suffered the effects of "strong drink", and saw first hand the way female prisoners were exploited. The WCTM became the primary lobbying organizations fighting for police matrons and prison reform.*
The idea was a hard sell. The male establishment did not want matrons in the prisons. According to Mary Jenks, "[The Chief of Police said] the work for these unfortunate women was so degrading and revolting that no pure-minded, respectable woman would take it; and if they should see and hear these vile outcasts, not one woman in a hundred would accept the office, for it was not a fit place for a woman. Beside this objection he raised another which he seemed to think would cap the climax. It was that they did not want women to care for the drunken women prisoners, for they always had done that and could still. A woman would be spying out and publishing things that should not go outside to the public."
The male establishment also claimed there was no budget to pay police matrons' salaries. The women's lobbying organizations identified highly qualified, willing candidates. In some instances, women's clubs and organizations stepped up and paid the salaries for police matrons out of their own pockets. Their efforts paid off. In the late 19th century, police stations and jails began to hire police matrons, and in some states, they became mandated by law. The first police matron in Los Angeles was Lucy Gray in 1888--twenty-seven years before the fictional character Anna Blanc was hired as a police matron by the Los Angeles Police Department.
More on police matrons and their duties later.
*The WCTM also fought for women police officers, women's right to vote, shelters for abused women and children, the eight-hour work day, federal aid for education, pure food and drug act, labor's right to organize, among other things