Policing and Progressivism: Controlling Women in Chicago

Sam Mitrani, College of DuPage

During the late nineteenth century, the power of the state to intervene in all walks of life grew at an incredible pace. This growth was not motivated by a reform impulse. Rather, it was a response to the crises of that era: first the Civil War, then the increasingly threatening labor strife that accompanied the development of a wage labor economy. Once built, however, the new institutions like the police made possible a vast new range of interventions by the state to address perceived social problems. Subsequent progressive battles over reform were the consequence, not the cause, of this growth of state power. Reformers fought over what to do with new state capacities that had been created to handle the labor and sectional crises, but which then expanded the ability of state to intervene in the daily lives of all Americans. This paper looks at one example: how the growth of the Chicago Police Department between the 1850s and 1880s made possible massive new interventions in women’s sexual and reproductive lives and thus facilitated the rise of a new conception of the role of government. In this case at least, the increasing power of the state made what had been private, potentially public. The story of police intervention in family matters represents the flipside of women’s use of private sphere ideology and organizations to increasingly intervene in politics in the Gilded Age. Just as women increasingly expanded out from their traditional sphere into the political world, so the political world, in the form of policemen, intruded into women’s traditional sphere. Thus what separates progressivism from earlier reform impulses like those of the antebellum period was in part the possibility of persuading the increasingly powerful state to intervene in issues that had previously been left to the family.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 66. Debating Progressive-Era Police Professionalization