Women in Unexpected Places: Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction
April 26, 2016
A Q&A with Erika Janik
Happy publication day to Erika Janik and her new book Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction! Pistols and Petticoats is a lively exploration of the struggles women have faced in law enforcement and in mystery fiction since the late nineteenth century. Working in a profession considered to be strictly a man’s domain, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. These sleuths and detectives refused to let that stop them, and paved the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture. We caught up with Janik to ask her about the social implications of women joining the police force, “murder as entertainment,” and how the reality of policewomen compares with the stories told in the crime genre.
What made you decide to write a book on women detectives and the mystery genre?
Something that always grabs my interest is what I sometimes refer to as “women in unexpected places.” I ran across a woman in Chicago who ran her own private detection agency around the turn-of-the-twentieth century and immediately wanted to know more. That led me deep into reading about real women in law enforcement—there are some real characters in the early years!—and thinking about how that reality compared with the fictional worlds I knew from a lifetime of books, television, and movies.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, how did the role of women in detective stories differ from women’s perceived role in society? How does it differ today, if at all?
Fictional female detectives were definitely on the fringes of acceptable female behavior of the time. Women were thought to be emotional—not logical—and rational beings capable of putting the pieces of a mystery together. Women were also expected to be in the home, not out on the street tailing suspects or inspecting crime scenes for clues. At the same time, though, most of these fictional detectives were either young women or spinsters, two stages of life during which women had a bit more latitude because they didn’t have husbands or children.
Fictional detectives today are much closer to real women in that it’s not unusual for a woman to work or to be out in the city at night on her own. Fictional detectives today also tend to have more complicated personal lives. They may be divorced or from a troubled home. One thing that hasn’t changed is that fictional detectives still tend not to be married.
Industrialization and greater education opportunities in the nineteenth century gave women more time to volunteer and to work in social reform. One role borne of this charitable work was the prison matron, a role that paved the way for women on the force. How did the introduction of prison matrons in women’s correctional facilities impact the lives of female inmates and the view of women in policing?
Reformers lobbied hard for the introduction of prison matrons to help protect female inmates from abuse in prisons run by and designed for men. In some prisons, female and male inmates were housed in the same cell, while in others, women were packed together in a single room and largely ignored. Prison matrons did bring more attention to female inmates and had a better understanding of their charges. It also helped to change perceptions of female inmates among the matrons and other reformers. Where before, a woman in prison would be considered “fallen” and beyond redemption, through their work, matrons began to sympathize and understand the circumstances that often drove women to crime. They actually began to point to men as the problem and cause of women’s downfall.
Prison matrons helped ease the path for women in policing because they demonstrated that women could successfully work in a law enforcement capacity.
When women first entered the world of policing, the typical lady detective was young and unmarried or an older “spinster” to allow more time to focus on the job, as all other women were expected to be married and tending to their families. What were the societal implications when married women and mothers began to enter the police force?
Married women entering the police force faced many of the same obstacles and pressures as any married, working mother took on, though law enforcement definitely had the added potential of bodily harm or even death on the job. Fictional female detectives today still tend to be young or unmarried “spinsters,” widows, or divorcees today—that hasn’t changed. This is one area where reality strongly diverges from fiction because many real female officers had partners and children from the very beginning. For instance, Chicago detective Alice Clement was married with a daughter and still made headlines for her adventures in the 1910s.
Why do you believe “murder as entertainment” as depicted in crime fiction and news reporting was such a satisfying genre for audiences in the nineteenth century? How do audiences view the genre today, and how does that affect the way we view current policewomen and female detectives?
I think that murder becomes satisfying entertainment as it becomes less common and as societies become more ordered. When you aren’t living in fear for your life every day, crime can be thrilling and fun as well as a way to play out our fears within a safe space. We also love a good story, even better if it has clear good and bad guys to cheer for and root against. I don’t think that has changed. Scandinavia is one of the safest places in the world today and yet their top literary genre is crime.
There are far more women in fictional detective settings than in real life. I think these fictional depictions of policewomen on television, in particular, have made it easier for our culture to imagine and accept a woman in that role. Unfortunately, that hasn’t necessarily translated to parity on our nation’s police forces.
About the Author
Erika Janik is an award-winning writer, historian, and the executive producer of Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio. She’s the author of five previous books, including Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter at @Erika_Janik and visit her website.