From Hearth to Shield: Policing Women in Chicago, 1855–90

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon D (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Sam Mitrani , American Military University
From Hearth to Shield:

Policing Women in Chicago, 1855-1890

           This paper examines the transformation in the policing of women brought about by the development of a powerful bureaucratized police department in Chicago between 1855 and 1890.  Before the second half of the nineteenth century, U.S. cities generally lacked police departments to enforce norms of gendered behavior. Families, therefore, were the main enforcers of order in general and gender norms in particular.  As cities created new and more powerful police departments, however, the police increasingly intervened in realms previously reserved for families.  In Chicago, the policing of gender norms produced new challenges for both the police and prostitutes, women involved in radical politics, and those facing unwanted pregnancies. Additionally, it shifted the terrain of contestation from the home to the state and set the stage for the Progressive Era struggles over all of these issues.

In the 1850s, before Chicago created a powerful police department, many political leaders viewed the family as the main bulwark of order.  Both women and men successfully invoked their roles in the family to plead for the remission of fines and release from prison for minor offences.  Anti-abortion laws were rarely enforced unless a woman died, and apart from a few spectacular raids, the city tolerated prostitution even though it was illegal.

By the 1880s, the police force was the main institution charged with protecting order and it was less willing to defer to the family.  The police began working to confine prostitutes to “disorderly houses” and prevent women from ending unwanted pregnancies.  They also deployed an ideology of appropriate female behavior against women active in Chicago’s anarchist movement.  This extension of state power into what had previously been considered family affairs transformed all of these activities into public, political issues.

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