Orange County Sheriff's Museum
Officers in Skirts
The role of women in American law enforcement dates to 1845, when the New York City Police Department appointed the first police matrons. Arguably the first sworn and fully-empowered policewoman in the United States was Alice Stebbins Wells of the Los Angeles Police Department, in 1910. (Chicago and Portland, Oregon, with some credibility, dispute that claim. It all comes down to the semantics of what constitutes a policewoman and what does not.) Prior to the 1950s, few women, other than teachers, nurses, and mercantile employees, worked outside the home, and law enforcement was no exception.
Because of vague criteria, the “first woman” of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department probably cannot be determined today. What, indeed, defined a “woman officer”? Did she require formal training? Did she need a badge? Did she have powers of arrest? Was she required to work the street, or would office duty suffice? Was she on a regular payroll? Did jail matrons qualify? The wife of longtime OCSD jailer Theo “Budge” Lacy Jr., Nona Lacy, was jail matron for a number of years—indeed, her family resided at the old stone jail in downtown Santa Ana—but she was certainly not a “street officer.” Similarly, the wife of Sheriff Sam Jernigan was matron in 1928, and other sheriffs’ wives probably helped out around the jail, as well.
An Orange County peace officers yearbook of 1952 states that early women in law enforcement were primarily concerned with “protection of juveniles and women” and “handling of delinquent girls . . . to protect them from as much publicity as possible . . . investigating neighborhood conditions, checking stores for shoplifters, and correcting irregularities that may occur between husband and wife, which may be a contributing factor of juvenile delinquency.” Women also “relieve on desk detail, compile statistics, take charge of evidence, and report to the personnel office.” “Care is taken,” the report emphasizes, “to be sure they are not placed in any special danger.”
The earliest known woman to be issued a non-matron OCSD badge appears to have been Augusta Day of the Bradford Avenue School in the Placentia School District. On September 26, 1935, principal C. H. Collett wrote to Sheriff Logan Jackson, requesting a badge for Day, the school nurse and attendance officer, “as her work often necessitates a show of authority . . .” Two days later, according to a penciled notation, Day was issued badge number 73.
Margaret L. Wangrud (later Margaret or “Marge” Woodard), “attractive, talented, and capable, gave up a banking career” to begin work as a clerk with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department on January 20, 1941, and in 1947 became a deputy sheriff, typist, Sheriff James Musick’s secretary, matron, warrants clerk, extradition and Grand Jury coordinator, and “dispatcher of patrol cars” in the Criminal Division. Not only all that, but she was charged with “the handling of mental and inebriate cases.” In 1957 Woodard was promoted to Deputy Sheriff II and assigned to the Juvenile Bureau. “At that time,” according to her subsequent retirement notice, “she was the only female investigator in Orange County.” In November 1961 she was promoted to Investigator II, from which she retired on May 24, 1973.
Other than the above, one is challenged to determine much female presence in the early Orange County Sheriff’s Department. That all changed drastically in 1968, when a photo of Sheriff’s Academy Class 7 suddenly shows no fewer than 15 females—when, in the previous class, not a one is to be seen! The abrupt change in policy was to staff the new Women’s Central Jail being opened that year. Women on patrol, however, remained an infrequent sight, but when they did arrive, they wore skirts, high heels, and sometimes carried their revolvers in a purse with a shoulder strap.
A member of that 1968 Academy class—the first to include females—was Sharon Gibson (Sharon Smith Eads Gibson), who would remain with the OCSD, primarily with the Transportation section, until 1975. In 2015, Gibson submitted a memoir to the OCSD Sheriff’s Museum, quoted here in part:
“In 1968 I was a PBX operator, then records clerk, then meter maid at the Fullerton Police Department. I was taking a ‘Women in Law Enforcement’ class at Orange Coast College where I heard about the Orange County Sheriff’s Department hiring women to work as matrons in their new women’s jail. I applied and tested, but in the meantime the job title was changed to deputy sheriff. Thirty-seven men and eighteen women (as I count them in our class photo) comprised Academy Class 7, and were split into two classrooms since there were so many of us. Pamela Swain Jones, the only African-American candidate, resided in Watts and had to drive to and from the Academy during the riots. As I recall, the training lasted about seven weeks. Every day started with rigorous callisthentic exercises before we were excused to class. My second day, I was so sore that I could barely walk and in all that pain, we had to exercise again. When we began shooting on the firing range at the Academy, between the exercising and the classroom work, they would call the name of the person with the best shooting score the previous day. One day, they called my name, and everybody was surprised, including me. My husband helped me a great deal by polishing my shoes and cleaning my weapon while I studied, and was also willing to let me practice my “come-along” holds on him. I also practiced a hold on my 15-year-old nephew as we were walking into a Bob’s Big Boy one evening, and we both ended up on the floor at the front door.
“An Academy memory that stands out is when I was summoned into the drill sergeant’s office because someone had complained about my car, a little Sunbeam Alpine with flower stickers all over it. One flower had red and white striped petals with blue stars in its center. Someone had considered this to be disrespectful of the flag. I pasted a paper circle over the star, and that seemed to satisfy the sergeant. Another memory of the sergeant’s office was when I was evaluated as doing just fine, except that I didn’t have “command presence” because I smiled too much. My husband still likes to tell that story.
“After graduating from the Academy we went to work for the purpose that we were originally hired for, to be jail matrons. The new jail was not finished so we worked in the old Sycamore Jail. James Musick was the sheriff. Our immediate superiors were the women who had been working there as matrons before we had been hired. The head matron, Barbara Ayers, was made a captain. Three of the other matrons were made sergeants and the other two were made deputies. We new graduates became their charges and they taught us how to do searches and how to keep our keys attached to us at all times. Everyone was excited about the pending move to the new jail. We worked three shifts; day, swing, and midnight, and rotated about every three months.
“Before the big move into the new facility, we all had to attend “jail school” for about two weeks; it was mostly how to conduct ourselves. One thing was about smoking. Female deputy sheriffs were not allowed to smoke in public. Male deputies were to use discretion when smoking in public. Working in the jail was pretty mundane. If you worked the most boring of all the jobs, Main Control, you did nothing but open and close gates. You were not allowed to have reading material unless you were enrolled in school somewhere. In that case, you could study your schoolbooks. Shifts and ‘station jobs’ were rotated every three months. My favorite place was in Records. You had one window to the outside world where parents, bail bondsmen, and the public could talk to you. Once, John Wayne asked me for directions to Sheriff Musick’s office. Wayne was an honorary deputy and good friend of the Sheriff Musick. [For “Duke” Wayne’s involvement with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, CLICK HERE.]
“As a newlywed and growing tired of nights, I learned from one of the ‘old timers’ that to get out of the jail I needed to put in for a transfer. At that time, the only place other than jail where females worked was in Transportation. I got my transfer after about a year in the jail and I went to work in Transportation, picking up and delivering female prisoners to and from other jurisdictions. This was a dream job...
“Things started changing to the ladies of OSCD. They began to teach the female deputies how to drive the big prisoner transport bus. Not me, because they knew that I was a short-timer. My husband and I had been building a 40-foot trimaran in our backyard, and we planned to move aboard and cruise to the South Pacific, to follow my husband’s dream. I quit in 1975. They threw me a lovely going-away party, and many of my Sheriff’s Office friends came down to the boat in Newport Harbor before we took off. I heard that soon after my departure, they put the first female deputy into Patrol. I also heard that they were pretty hard on those first female patrol deputies. I felt bad that I had deserted them, but it was not in my plan or control. I just went along on a ride, and it was indeed the ride of a lifetime. What grand memories I have as one of the first female deputy sheriffs in Orange County.”
Today, Sharon Smith Eads Gibson resides in Hawaii but occasionally travels to Orange County for old-timer reunions.
A contender for “first” OC female deputy—although she was not on the payroll—was Alice Chandler, age 21 in 1949 when she was recruited by Sheriff James Musick to help chase away trespassers on Irvine Ranch land near her rural home east of Orange. The two regular deputies in that area had far too much territory to cover, to pay much attention to Peters Lake, which land baron James Irvine considered his personal fishing hole. Sheriff Musick furnished Chandler with a standard non-numbered deputy’s badge (now in the Department Archives, along with the .32-cal. revolver which she bought herself in Santa Ana). Over the next two years, Chandler shooed away a few errant interlopers, but never had to draw her gun, which eventually ended up forgotten with its badge in a closet, for almost 60 years. In 2008, word of Chandler’s early service to the Department reached Sandra Hutchens, Orange County’s first female sheriff. Hutchens invited Chandler to Hutchens’s swearing-in ceremony. “She’ll always be a part of the Department,” said Sheriff Hutchens. Chandler calls the OCSD “my family.” Note: CLICK HERE for photographs and a more detailed account of Alice Chandler's activities with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
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