DeKALB – Joyce Klein joined the police force in 1980 with the world at her fingertips and a gun in her purse.
But as she reflected on her early career Friday, something about those first years seemed strange.
“It was sort of surprising when I started in 1980 because I felt like things had changed so much, just going through high school and through college, but then when I started in a male-dominated field, you do see it’s not quite there yet,” Klein said. “We weren’t quite at that same point as what we saw going on in the rest of society. I think we’re starting to catch up a little bit more.”
The lobby of Northern Illinois University’s Convocation Center was host Friday to representatives of 17 state, federal and local law enforcement agencies gathered to celebrate “Women of the Shield,” those who have helped pave the way for young women in law enforcement.
Klein’s first uniform was a police skirt and a department-issued cross-body purse for her gun.
“Hold on,” Klein said mockingly to a pretend criminal. “Let me get my purse.”
Years later, the sheriff’s female deputies would be provided a duty equipment belt – just one – that was expected to fit each woman.
Klein, who would go on to become the department’s first female lieutenant and now, the first female chief of corrections, said conditions have improved, but there’s still work to be done.
“Things are changing and advancing, and it’s good to see,” she said.
For Northwestern University Police Department Deputy Chief Gloria Graham, childhood was a chaotic time of domestic abuse and life in a women’s and children’s shelter. Unfortunately, the abuse in her home was considered nothing more than a “family issue,” and police quickly became a necessary evil, she said.
But her experience fostered a compassion and understanding that would help her climb through the ranks of police departments across the nation.
Each promotion was accompanied by an all-too-familiar sense of self-doubt that was reinforced by the discouraging words of some of her colleagues.
“To this day, some of the first advice I give to recruits when I meet with them one-on-one is to be cautious about people who warn you about not being ‘ready’ to accept the new responsibilities that you are interested in,” Graham said.
“Especially when they cannot provide you with specific competencies where growth needs to occur and provide guidance on how you might get there. It’s been my experience that, more often than not, those who generically inform you that you aren’t ready are sometimes simply intimidated by the possibility of your advancement.”
More than 80 officers, some with tears in their eyes, watched a slide show of some of the area’s most influential female officers, and were reminded they are not the fragile, vulnerable and self-proving police they are often mistaken for.
“We want to encourage young females who are looking to go into or aspire to be in law enforcement – we want to celebrate women and just show them their peers in this profession,” NIU Community Relations and Crime Prevention Officer Weyni Langdon said. “Although it has been commonly looked at as a male-dominated profession, there’s women in this profession, and we are celebrated.”