Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways. Each Saturday I plan to highlight one of these remarkable women. There will be no limit to the areas of history that I may include; however as a guide I will look to the month of their birth, the month of their death or the month associated with their mark in history when I select them. Is there an outstanding women in history you would like me to include? I welcome your suggestions. Would you like to guest blog one of the world’s outstanding women? Let me hear from you.
Today an outstanding woman from the Los Angeles Rank and File. Meet Alice Stebbins Wells.
Transcribed by V. Gerald Iaquinta.
Source: California of the South Vol. V, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 380-384, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis. 1933.
Photographs: Google Images or Ancestry.com
The life history of Alice Stebbins Wells is an interesting one. She has been the leader in many movements of importance to the human race and a pioneer in some, notably in the policewoman movement. The position she has occupied for the past twenty-four years, that of policewoman in Los Angeles, requires talents which she possesses to a high degree. She has a strict sense of justice, a keen intellect, is guided by high ethical standards, and above all else has a desire to be of real service to mankind. She seems to have an intuitive knowledge of human beings, and has a genuine interest in them irrespective of station, race or creed. In reviewing her life work she seems to have a real desire to help as many as possible and to bring them to a realization of their latent possibilities. She firmly believes there is a little spark of virtue in every human being only waiting to be strengthened. No situation can daunt her courageous soul.
Alice Bessie Stebbins was born on June 13, 1873 in Manhattan, Kansas. A daughter of Homer Pease and Sarah (Kinney) Stebbins, both of whom were descendants of notable New England families and early graduates of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, where Mrs. Sarah Stebbins’ father, Dean Daniel Kinney, was known for fifty years to all Oberlin students. Homer P. Stebbins taught Latin in the Oberlin schools, and later established and edited the first newspaper in Hiawatha, Kansas, a file of which is in the state capitol at Topeka.
Alice Stebbins was educated at Atchison, Kansas, graduating from the high school there. After leaving school she devoted several years to a business career in the Middle West, New York, and New England. About 1900 she became pastor’s assistant for Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, made famous by Henry Ward Beecher, and following that she spent two years at the Hartford, Connecticut, Theological Seminary, specializing in Old Testament history with the intention of giving lectures on “The Message of the Prophets for Today.” While attending the seminary she spent two vacations filling summer pulpits in Congregational Home Missionary churches in Maine, thereby becoming the first woman preacher in that state. She then gave her lecture course on the prophets with their civic message for our day at Chautauqua, Bible schools, and many churches throughout the East and Middle West, including Oklahoma.
She accepted a pastorate for a short time near Perry, Oklahoma. While in that state she married Frank Wells, a member of a pioneer Wisconsin family, whose eventual ill health necessitated her return to the professional field. Mr. and Mrs. Wells have three children: Ramona, who married Carl Horack, of Berkeley, California; Raymond Stebbins, who married Vera VanValer; and Gardner Stebbins, who married Carmen Modie. Both sons live in Los Angeles.
In May, 1910, having moved to Los Angeles, Mrs. Wells conceived the idea and undertook the work of securing the enactment of legislation creating the office of policewoman in this city. This undertaking was successfully concluded on August 13 (one day later than other sources) of that year, and on this date she took the office, thus becoming the first regular policewoman in the United States and, so far as is known, the world.
This was such an innovation and a widening of the field for women, as well as helpful in character building for women and children, that interest was immediately aroused and in response to many appeals she lectured in scores of cities in the United States and Canada. Foreign countries were also deeply impressed with the movement and inquiries flooded her office. As the result of this agitation Mrs. Wells was able, in May, 1915, to call a conference for the purpose of organizing an international association of policewomen in Baltimore, Maryland, coincident with the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, now known as the National Conference of Social Work. She was elected president and served for five years. The movement had grown so rapidly that she was enabled to invite policewomen from fourteen states to this organizing convention. At the conference less than one year later the association membership represented twenty-two states, Canada and England. Their publications are interesting even to the layman, especially Mrs. Wells’ first presidential address which was published in the annual conference proceedings, and Publication No. 1, which was printed and distributed the following year by the new policewomen’s association.
In this she fixed the status of the word policewoman originally chosen by her as a distinct term pertaining only to regularly appointed city officers. Because of the novelty every woman given police power for any reason whatever was being called a policewoman; an erroneous appellation often caused confusion and at times unjust criticism. She also urged training facilities in established centers because small cities were writing: “If we get the appropriation for a policewoman, can you recommend a trained woman officer who will come to us?” Mrs. Wells, in 1917, conducted the first university training class for policewomen at the first summer session held by the University of California in Los Angeles.
Mrs. Wells is a Republican and a Prohibitionist. She is the founder and the extension director of the Pan-Pacific Association for Mutual Understanding. She organized this association in 1924 and it has held interesting travel dinners featuring Pacific Coast counties ever since. She is a member of the Friday Morning Club, which club was among the signers of her petition to create the office of policewoman. During 1927 – 1928 she was organizing chairman and first president of the Women’s Peace Officers Association of California, which during its first year enrolled membership extending from San Diego to Humboldt County, and published as a yearbook the first compilation of women peace officers of the state. (Policewomen, police matrons, deputy sheriffs and deputy constables.) Within the last twenty years more than two hundred fifty cities in the United States appointed policewomen, and the number in Los Angeles increased to thirty-two. Mrs. Wells has held her position continuously since her appointment in 1910. Her latest activity is that of curator of the Los Angeles Police Department, appointed by James E. Davis at her request in order that she might establish a museum within the police department. Here are being gathered photographs, clippings from newspapers, pamphlets, equipment, etc., dating from the earliest days of the department down to the present time.
Since the policewoman movement is a notable contribution from southern California to world welfare, the reception of this first policewoman and her message by the public is revealed by excerpts from a few of the newspapers of those times of which we give a few of interest. Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Canada), January 17, 1913: “Mrs. Wells is no academic speaker and speaks from a fund of knowledge acquired through actual experience and she is so earnest and of such a sweet and attractive personality as she presents her message concerning several grave problems and why there should be policewomen that sooner or later the civilized world must answer.”
Chicago Daily Tribune, January 22, 1913: “Resolutions were adopted by the Woman’s City Club yesterday calling for the appointment of policewomen in Chicago. Mrs. Alice Stebbins Wells has just told the meeting of her work as policewoman in the police department of Los Angeles. Mrs. Wells urged the Chicago department to appoint women for patrol duty, for censors of public amusements and advisers of women.”
Lexington (Ky.) Herald: “Womanly and winning, the first policewoman, Mrs. Wells, of Los Angeles, in her appearance in Lexington’s afternoon at the courthouse under the auspices of the Civic League, the Moral Improvement League, the Advisory Board of the Juvenile Court and the Associate Charities, more than justified the commendatory things that have been said and written of her work.”
Church Life, Toronto, Canada: “I fancy Mrs. Alice Stebbins Wells on her recent visit, has dispelled a good many illusions which some of us probably cherished. She is not large or vigorous but a gentle little figure endowed with a sweet smile, a sweet voice, not loud or strong, but clear and penetrating and altogether an appealing personality. I think the whole conception of the police department and its administration must be regarded with a new insight and appreciation by everyone who has heard this most gifted woman describe some of its general functions and uses.”
Herald, Washington, D. C.: “Mrs. Alice Stebbins Wells gave an address last night on ‘The Need of Policewomen and Their Work’ in the Unitarian Church. Dr. U. G. B. Pierie, pastor and Chaplain of the Senate, introduced Commissioner Rudolph as chairman of the evening. The necessity of women police officers was explained. It behooves every municipality to provide women officials who can render help in many ways when man would be powerless. The policewoman’s work is largely preventive. Mrs. Wells is small, and we who heard her talk in a low sweet voice would be apt to hazard a guess that she was a college professor or a litterateur.”
Among the written testimonials are these:
University of Pittsburgh, January 13, 1913: “I wish to express my appreciation of the address you delivered last night. It was most able, forceful, effective and convincing. The audience was delighted and instructed. The subjects you presented are fundamental to social well-being and you presented them in such a way as at once to disarm criticism and compel attention. The address cannot fail to bring about good results in Pittsburgh.
B. McCormack, Chancellor.”
Toronto, January 14, 1913. “Not in many years of social work and interest in social problems have I heard an address so comprehensive, so intelligent and so full of 1913 common sense as that to which we listened last evening. There is in this day no lack of speakers who critize, but there is a dearth of speakers who are able to suggest as you did the preventive and educational measures which are practical. I am sure that your visit will prove of much benefit to our city.
A. McCarthy, Controller.”