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Offbeat Oregon History

First woman cop was Portland’s “municipal mother”

Continued From Last Week

So right away, Baldwin was hearing the stories. Most likely there were some terrible ones; they obviously touched her heart. Over the next several decades she would dedicate her life to doing something about them.

Time went by. The Baldwins left Lincoln. Eventually, in 1904, they moved to Portland; LeGrand had taken a job for a chain of dimestores, and was tasked with opening one in Oregon. So Lola went forth and plugged into the Portland aid-society scene.

She found an eager, active community waiting for her. The Florence Crittendon Rescue Home and Portland YWCA Traveler’s Aid Society were delighted by her energy and compassion and soon she was a vital part of their operations.

And they needed the help. The Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, the first World’s Fair on the West Coast, was coming up in just a year, and the ladies were very worried. At earlier Exposition fairs back east, they had observed a disturbing pattern: Thousands of innocent country girls had come to see the electric lights and play at the carnival, and recruiters for the always-hungry sex industries had noticed … and moved in.

Worse, there were rumors of a vast and shadowy conspiracy, an underground “white slave trade” organized and staffed by sinister, swarthy foreigners, that was allegedly kidnapping girls and spiriting them away to a life of miserable sex service in foreign seraglios and harems. These rumors turned out to be bunk, but they played perfectly with the mainstream society’s xenophobia and endemic racism. To a 40-year-old club woman in 1905, it made perfect sense that members of “inferior races” like Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, Italians, etc., would look at “racially superior nordic women” as sexual trophies.

So when Lola Baldwin came to Portland, the Traveler’s Aid Society quickly identified her as just the woman to run their operations at the fair, to frustrate these sinister flesh-traders and protect Oregon girls.

Lola Baldwin was ready, willing, and more than able to take this on.

By all accounts she did a phenomenal job of this. Hundreds of volunteers from aid societies, social clubs, and churches patrolled the streets and haunted the Union Station, spotting solitary girls and “adopting” them as unsolicited chaperones, offering them safe lodging and guiding them on their trips. Along the way, they frustrated numerous attempts to recruit them into dodgy or immoral situations.

They also caught up with a few girls after it was too late, and guided them through the process of prosecuting their seducers or forcing them to the altar. (Often the forced marriage was followed almost immediately by a divorce accompanied by a court order for child support.)

But they noticed something interesting along the way: Few of the recruiters they came across were visitors. Nearly all of them were local operators looking for fresh, buxom damsels to feed into the front end of the saloon-centered flesh machines.

By the end of the fair, Lola Baldwin was convinced that the real problem was not smooth, sinister foreign agents. It was a homegrown problem. Which meant that it was not going to go away when the fair ended. It would just go back underground. Local recruiters and pimps would go back to catching a girl here and a woman there, on the street or at a lunch counter, and luring them into a life of exploitation from which it would be very difficult to escape.

If anything, the end of the fair made things worse. Job opportunities for single girls and women became scarce, which raised the spectre of girls being forced to accept a dangerous gig in a sleazy saloon to ward off starvation or eviction. At the same time, many of the donors whose support had made the job possible now stopped, thinking the job was done. The Traveler’s Aid Society struggled to meet the challenge.

Finally, in 1908, Lola Baldwin got in front of the City Council to make a proposal.

“I beg to submit to you a few facts,” she told them, “in regard to the work of the Travelers’ Aid for the protection of girlhood in Portland.”

Then she laid out a very lucid overview of what she and her team had been up to for the previous two and a half years, including some statistics: 230 “special girls” assisted in 1906, 322 in the first 11 months of 1907, and no end in sight.

This, she submitted, was evidence that the Portland Police Department needed a program to safeguard Portland’s at-risk girls. She asked for a budget of $3,000 for the job.

Finally, she closed her speech with one of the more brilliant rhetorical gambits of Oregon history:

“We notice,” she said, “that there was $5,030 used this year for the dog pound, and an additional thousand is asked for 1908.”

Would the Council consider, she asked, allocating half that amount “for practical, positive protection for the growing girlhood of the city of Portland”?

Well, when one put it that way, how could they have said no?

Lola Baldwin started her new job as a police detective in April 1908. It was the beginning of a 15-year career with the Portland Police Department.

At the beginning, her primary goal was to prevent girls from falling into the clutches of vice operators, rather than punishing them after they did; so she maintained her Travelers’ Aid office at the YWCA and dressed in plain business clothes, keeping her star in her purse where it could be deployed only when needed. At-risk girls who needed her help would, she knew, be very reluctant to visit the police station.

And she was very successful in this. In large part that was because of her relentless focus on the girls. She made connections with saloon owners and even bordello madams, who would actually contact her to come and rescue underage girls. She was feared by some, loved by many, and respected by all … at least, at first.

In fact, if Lola Baldwin had been run over by a streetcar in 1909, a year after taking on her job, she would be remembered today as an untarnished hero, a Mother Teresa figure … a Rescuer like Bianca, from the Disney movie.

But this focus shifted fairly quickly and led Detective Baldwin to a darker, less noble place. Although she never lost her focus on providing support for girls at risk of making bad choices, she became increasingly harsh toward those who had already “fallen.”

Mostly this was because of one of the more toxic trends in Progressive Era thought: the moral authoritarianism of the Social Hygiene Movement.

The Social Hygiene Movement, a.k.a. the Sex Hygiene Movement, was a movement led largely by doctors, and it was a reaction to new medical evidence of the damage caused by various forms of vice – especially prostitution.

At some point just before the turn of the century, doctors confirmed that prostitutes were a disease vector. Young, horny men would patronize them in their 20s, acquire a venereal disease, and pass it on to their innocent future wives. This, obviously, was a serious public health issue. The solution, according to social hygienists, was to stamp out prostitution entirely, for the protection of the innocent. There could be no more consideration, or not much more, for the plight of the poor “fallen woman,” the unfortunate creature to be pitied rather than judged, as earlier Progressives like Baldwin had felt.

It took a while for this shift in perception, from “prostitute as tragic figure” to “prostitute as filthy disease vector,” to percolate into Lola Baldwin’s practice as Portland’s first policewoman. But by the early 1910s, it pretty much had. She still was all about saving the innocent girls from a “life of shame,” but when it came to the girls who were already living the dream, as it were, her focus shifted from saving them to saving society from them.

So Detective Baldwin vigorously moved against anything that seemed like it might lead to prostitution: Massage parlors, variety theaters, shooting galleries, and even dance halls. In 1911 and 1912 alone, her team raided 216 establishments on vice charges and arrested 1,900 people. She followed up on them afterward, advocating for stiffer sentences to break the “catch, fine and release” cycle that the city had used for decades to rake off a cut of sex workers’ profits without slowing them down.

This shift in focus from saving girls to saving society was at its apex during the First World War, when Baldwin received federal police authority and a mandate to enact a sort of moral martial law everywhere on the West Coast within five miles of a military base, to keep soldiers safe from venereal disease.

After the war, popular opinion rapidly shifted away from Baldwin’s style of progressive authoritarianism, and she started having to defend her job. By now, of course, she was in her 60s. The ragtime era had come and gone, ripening into the jazz age — musical styles that she disdainfully associated with Black culture and “degeneracy.” Flashy clothing styles that she had once associated with prostitutes were now standard fashions for a rising generation of flappers. Things just seemed to be getting worse and worse.

So, increasingly discouraged and out of touch with the times, Lola Baldwin retired from police work.

Afterward, she remained active in various charities dedicated to keeping girls safe, but her days of supervising the kicking-in of bordello doors were over. She finally died at the age of 97 in 1957.

The story of Lola Baldwin is somewhat hard to get straight these days. Modern society is far more libertarian than hers was, with far less consensus on what constitutes good culture and what constitutes bad or degenerate culture. It’s super easy to look back on the Lola Baldwin who behaved like a reactionary, authoritarian busybody, shutting down dance halls on the off-chance that patrons might have sex with one another and throwing suspected prostitutes into psycho-medical custody for months to keep them away from soldiers, and forget what an extraordinary and daring thing it was for a woman to do what she did 14 years earlier. It’s easy to recoil from the overt racism and snobbery of the aid-society movement, and overlook its role in battling against human trafficking.

That’s why I like Disney’s “The Rescuers” so much. It captures the spirit of an earlier aid-society movement, before it had been corrupted by the drive to perform social surgery, back when it was all about saving the girls and empowering young women to choose their own destiny. Back when women like Lola Greene Baldwin were untarnished heroes.

Like so many other Progressive Era figures, Lola Baldwin was a trailblazer. She was venturing into spaces that are very well known to us, but which she was seeing for the very first time. It’s probably not too surprising that she made some bad calls, and hurt some people along the way.

But one thing nobody can dispute: Throughout her life in Portland, Lola Greene Baldwin did her level best to leave the world a better place than she found it. We should all aspire to such an epitaph.

(Sources: A Municipal Mother: Portland’s Lola Greene Baldwin, America’s First Policewoman, a book by Gloria E. Myers published in 1995 by OSU Press; Storied & Scandalous Portland, Oregon, a book by Joe Streckert published in 2020 by Globe Pequot; “Lola G. Baldwin,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced in 2008 by Nadine Jelsing of Oregon Public Broadcasting)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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