March 29, 2021
“I like to do police work. It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help,” Marie Owens told the Tribune in 1906.
“In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective,” she said. She described discovering scores of children as young as 7 years old working in factories all over the city.
Marie Owens was the daughter of Irish famine immigrants who moved to Chicago in her 20s with her husband Thomas. However, in February 1888, Thomas died of typhoid fever leaving her to raise five children. She got a job in 1889 with the city health department, working as a factory inspector who enforced child-labor and compulsory education laws.
There was public outrage at the time over sweatshop conditions, but the inspectors’ powers were limited. Owens was transferred to the Police Department in 1891 where she was given powers of arrest, the title of detective sergeant and a police star.
She visited courts and assisted detective officers in cases involving women and children and her work affected thousands. The legal working age at that time was 14. According to historical news accounts, Owens established schools within department stores so young workers could get an education, and she persuaded other employers to shorten their workdays.
In 1923, she retired after 32 years with the department.
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