It was 1974 when Mary Ellen Cooper became the first female member of the Moberly Police Department. In the next six years, Barb Riley and Kenna Neese would join her as pioneers in local policing as the first female deputy and investigator, respectively, jobs many women across mid-Missouri hold today.
Breaking the glass ceiling does not happen easily nor comfortably, the three women agreed, but serving vulnerable members of the community, especially women and children, quickly became worth it. As some of the few female officers, the three were regularly sent to calls involving other women. Many of these calls involved vicitms of sex trafficking, domestic violence and drug abuse. Being a woman helping other women proved beneficial for the town’s police department and became a highlight of police work for the women involved.
Cooper didn’t set out to be Moberly’s first female officer until her husband died of cancer, leaving her to support her three children.
On the first day of the job, Cooper experienced lewd humor and discomfort from several people in the department, including her boss. She immediately felt the weight of being first.
“People just laughed at me like it was the funniest thing,” Cooper said. “They did not want to hire me.”
The first female police officer in Missouri was hired in 1957, Winona “Jean” Schrieber, and her uniform was a brown skirt and high heels. While they didn’t have to wear skirts, their uniforms as well as the work environment were made by men for men.
“You know, we were in the minority,” Riley said. “And being in the minority, you don’t want to make a lot of waves. You learn quickly to side-step and deal with difficult situations, but that was the reality back then. I don’t think you would put up with what we had today, and I am happy to say that.”
Neese recalls for the first several months on the job other officers showing up to her calls, no matter what the call was, to make sure she could handle the situation. She came to the department as one of the most qualified candidates with a college degree in criminal justice. After years of work, Riley recalls being asked by a judge to bring in a “real” deputy sheriff to bailiff a court hearing. Despite the incidents of sexism these women experienced, they earned their place on the force anyway.
Whether it was flying under the radar to successfully disperse a mob or simply being kind during a difficult interrogation to get answers, being the underdog, they felt, had its advantage.
“You could play your femininity to your benefit,” Riley said. “Just by being super nice, offering them coffee and playing into that then all of a sudden you start the interrogation and get them talking easily.”
Six months after the department hired Cooper she recalls overhearing the police chief at the time say they could benefit from hiring more females.
The women worked together in Moberly for more than a decade. They recall feeling comfortable enough around one another to share experiences and crack jokes, knowing they supported each other.
The 1960’s, a decade before they entered police work, was a revolutionary era marked by the accomplishments of second-wave feminists like the passing of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which barred private employers from discriminating against women. But inequality in society was still present and being the first few women in law enforcement didn’t mean all the doors opened at once. The 1970’s was still a dramatically different world for professional women than the one today with the ladder for women to climb in police work still nonexistent, according to Riley. She was deterred from running for sheriff, a job that would come with more money and responsibility, because of her gender.
Riley told locals who asked her about running the county wasn’t ready for a female sheriff.
“And they weren’t,” Riley said. “I had the qualifications, I had the education, but there’s no way. I was smart enough to know that I wasn’t going to put my family through that humiliation. And I would have loved being sheriff.”
“Who wants that headache,” Neese added.
Total agency in the workplace was yet to be afforded to women. Many schools and workplaces in the 1970’s still required women and girls to wear dresses. Luckily, pants were now given to both male and female police officers. Still, the three recall suspending much of their amenity and femininity just to do the job they had.
“You can’t take things personally, but you can’t be a wuss either,” Neese said.
The women had no examples of successful and ambitious female officers, sheriffs or chiefs before them. Riley felt prepared for this reality in police work after years working in a car dealership, another male-dominated industry.
She remembers her former boss at the dealership warning all the female employees that if they wore a pantsuit into the dealership they would be fired. That evening, the female employees phoned each other up and chose a day to all wear the forbidden style. The pantsuit for women became popularized in American fashion in the late 1960’s and by the 1980’s was one of the most profitable fashion trends seen in years. From 1980 to 1987, annual sales of women's suits rose by almost 6 million units, a $600 million gain for that sector of the fashion industry, while dresses declined by 29 million units. The employees’ strategy was clear.
“This place will close without us,” Riley said. “But that's what we had to do. So when I came in law enforcement, I knew I had to stand my ground.”
Policing proved to be a rewarding profession as a woman. Female officers need to be present when transporting a female across state and county lines, so Neese, Riley and Cooper were often sent across the U.S. for work. Helping other women get out of sex trafficking, domestic abuse, prostitution, drug addiction and other dangerous situations became a highlight in their careers, as well as aiding children.
“Sometimes you helped them get out of that lifestyle,” Riley said. “They didn’t choose that. Sometimes they don’t know that they have options.”
“The reason I got into it was to help people,” Neese said. “When you have those kids that come up and say, thanks you got me out of a horrible situation, or even when they got in trouble and you went to bat for them...Even if you got one saying thank you, it's worth it.”
Cooper, Riley and Neese worked in policing for over fifteen years, and attributes the thick skin they’ve come to have not only as a result of police work, but as a product of the world in which they lived. A world that told them what to wear and actively resticted them to certain professions because of their sex. Neese retired last four years ago and recognizes the women in the office being treated differently. The three share a sense of pride for the women in uniform today, even if they didn’t go through what the generation before them had to, these women paved the way.