August 26th is nationally recognized as Women’s Equality Day, recalling that day in 1920 when the 19th amendment was certified to the Constitution, recognizing women’s right to vote.
In 1920, Mae Foley was thirty-four years old, married, with two young children, and yearning for a career with the New York Police Department.
She’d married young, just out of high school, and worked in a settlement house providing services and assistance to immigrants to the city for several years.
During the war, she saw that there was a need for women to serve in the Department.
There were runaways in the street, and Mae saw a pressing need to care for those women and children—whether abandoned, lost, or otherwise in need of help. The mayor and police commissioner saw their growing city changing rapidly.
In 1918, New York state law provided for appointing six women as “emergency policewomen” due to the wartime workforce shortage. More were appointed during 1918 and 1919.
The need for support extended beyond the hiring of emergency policewomen, though. Mae was a natural recruiter, organizing membership drives, hosting events, and helping to recruit more than 2,000 new volunteers for the Women’s Police Reserve.
They didn’t get paid, but they did have sharp-looking uniforms.
Mae enjoyed the social aspects of the recruiting effort and the opportunity to meet more people and persuade them to support the cause.
She spent time near the Navy yard looking for young girls needing assistance and watched for spies on the subway.
Later, she became part of the Broadway squad, patrolling the streets to ensure they were safe for those attending plays and social events in the heart of Manhattan.
One of Mae’s colleagues, Captain Edith Pitkin, with the Women’s Police Reserve in 1918
But the police reserve was fading in importance by 1920, and Mae was more than ready to make her service with the NYPD permanent and, perhaps just as important, a paid service.
She wanted to apply.
On May 4, 1920, NYS Law Chapter 705 abolished the Department’s old job of “matron” and officially created the rank of Policewoman.
Mae’s goal was now a reality.
It took a couple of more years before she and her husband, John, felt their daughters were old enough to manage after school alone while both parents worked.
John was a washing machine repairman, but with Mae’s influence and her many contacts, he was able to get a job as a security officer with a department store.
And Mae won her gold shield as a policewoman in 1923. She was on her way.
As the child of Irish and French immigrants, she grew up understanding the importance of America’s freedoms, its appeal to the hundreds of thousands who poured into the city every year of her childhood, and how that influx rapidly changed the culture of her hometown.
Her father had earned his citizenship. Her mother never did. After all, she wasn’t able to vote, she’d tell Mae. So, what difference did it make?
An early policewoman directing traffic.
Voting made all the difference to Mae.
She participated in every election, studied the candidates and their platforms, and never took her right to vote for granted.
She was active in off-duty organizations that supported various candidates. She knew, too, the significance of Constitution Day, September 17th, the anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution as the bedrock of American democracy.
Mae Foley knew what it meant, ensuring the government fulfilled its charter without violating the rights of its citizens.
In retirement, she became a lobbyist. Not in the sense that we think of lobbying today. But she was very busy indeed advocating for better pay and benefits for fire and policemen and women. A regular at the table, the Borough President in Queens grew to expect her at every meeting.
She understood the importance of her democratic freedoms and rights. And Mae Foley exercised them all.
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