Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the course of doing some poking around for yesterday’s post on the 1913 “White Slavery in Los Angeles” booklet from the Homestead’s collection, an interesting book was located called Policing Women: The Sexual Politics of Law Enforcement and the LAPD.
Written by Janis Appier, then assistant professor of history at Ohio State University and published by Temple University Press in 1998, the work has a chapter devoted to the career of Aletha Gilbert. Gilbert was an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for over a quarter-century, first as assistant matron to her mother, Lucy Gray, working with girls and women and, from 1914-1929, as the “City Mother,” overseeing a bureau dedicated to assisting “wayward” girls and their mothers.
Gilbert also had a background connected to the early founder of El Monte, a town in the central San Gabriel Valley founded by migrants, mainly from the American South, in the early 1850s. Her maternal grandfather, Ira Thompson, established the first hotel in the community, the Willow Grove, which was along Valley Boulevard near the San Gabriel River (Rio Hondo), and was the first postmaster in town. Her father was Warren W. Maxey, another early settler who hailed from Kentucky and was a farmer. Maxey married Ira Thompson’s daughter, Lucy, in 1857 and Aletha was the couple’s youngest of eight children. By the 1870s, the Maxey family was farming in Azusa.
In 1875, Warren Maxey died and his widow took on the responsibility of raising her large family and maintaining the farm on her own. Later, Lucy married Thomas Gray, a farmer in the La Ballona Township in the area near modern Culver City and other areas west of Los Angeles. Gray died within a couple of years, however, and Lucy and Aletha moved to Los Angeles. Showing more of her inborn initiative in dealing with loss, Lucy found a position as matron for women for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Aletha, meanwhile, married at seventeen to Thomas Gilbert and the couple had a daughter, Hilda. The marriage, however, ended within ten years when Aletha secured a divorce decree on the grounds of desertion in 1897. Returning with Hilda to live with her mother in the East Los Angeles (later Lincoln Heights) neighborhood of Los Angeles, Aletha worked as a traveling saleswoman for a wholesale grocery firm.
However, in 1902, Gilbert was hired to be her mother’s assistant and then became matron, when Lucy Gray died of pneumonia two years later. In the following decade, Gilbert became better known as the Progressive Era’s penchant for social reforms of all kinds, including the condition of young women, further became prominent.
Among the concerns expressed was “white slavery,” which, as noted in yesterday’s post, is a choice of phrase that, by modern understanding, reflects a false equivalency with the slavery of blacks in America for centuries. “White slavery” was primarily about prostitution, or “the social evil,” though it also could involve elements of seduction and desertion, physical and mental abuse, and others.
In the “White Slavery in Los Angeles” booklet, author Charles Edward Locke, a Methodist Episcopal minister, identified “starvation wages” as a major factor in women turning to vice or otherwise getting into moral and legal trouble. In 1911, Gilbert said in an interview that low wages for women was the reason two-thirds of the females in the city jail were arrested. She paid particular attention to women who worked in sales at stores, another point made by Locke.
In 1912, Gilbert was promoted from chief matron to a police officer, mainly because she felt having the power of arrest would assist in protecting young women from overt sexual harassment from men. Gilbert was appointed just several months after the first woman officer in the department, Alice Stebbins Wells.
Gilbert had not been long in her new position she and her boss, Leo Marden, were commenting to some police officers in San Diego about the problem of the city not cracking down hard enough on prostitution and its effects on young women in Los Angeles when retrieving a girl from their city who, evidently, had been taken to San Diego illicitly, and it got into the local papers.
Police Chief Charles E. Sebastian was in the midst of an aggressive anti-vice campaign that was working well, at least in his view and that of Mayor George Alexander, although prostitution was still to be found in the city (as would be expected.) Sebastian seethed with anger and threatened to charge the pair with violation of a department rule forbidding publicly speaking about LAPD policy and personnel.
Still, this incident did not prevent Sebastian from accepting Gilbert’s proposal to create the “City Mother’s Bureau,” which would not work with the juvenile courts and girls already within that system, but in the advising of mothers who were concerned about their daughters’ sexual activity and of their girls, as well. As noted by Appier, nearly two-thirds of all young women in juvenile court matters were there for “sex delinquency,” essentially premarital sex. Much of the sexual activity meant dealing with the likelihood of venereal disease.
Gilbert, then, believed that working with the girls and their mothers would bring those numbers down, but she was well aware that rapidly changing societal conditions in terms of advances in communication (the phone, for example), travel (the automobile, which also served as a rendezvous spot for young people), and more leisure time for amusements of all kinds, were major factors in the concerns of those born in the more prudish Victorian era, but grappling with Progressive era problems.
“White slavery” was directly tied to the matter of premarital sex and Chief Sebastian also expressed a particular concern about the matter of “white slavery” in interviews he conducted during his tenure as chief in the first half of the 1910s. Obviously, Sebastian’s willingness to work with Gilbert in establishing the “City Mother’s Bureau” was an extension of his overall campaign against vice in Los Angeles. As a sidenote, Sebastian’s reform efforts propelled him to the mayor’s office, but he resigned, ironically, because of leaked news of his adultery.
Gilbert was given a separate location to operate her bureau, with offices established in the recently closed Los Angeles Normal School, a former teacher’s education college that eventually morphed into the Southern Branch of the University of California and then into U.C.L.A. She began her work with the bureau in fall 1914 and became a prominent figure in Los Angeles over the next decade and a half.
Appier wrote that, by the 1920s, however, Gilbert’s bureau and her work shifted noticeably from the problem of young women to those involved married older women through what she called a “Domestic Relations Court.” Some of this shift appears to be due to her battling with local officials about the problem of stemming pre-marital sex and venereal diseases and moving into something that was less controversial and, perhaps, more affirming and positive. Moreover, the Progressive Era peaked and waned by the Twenties and a marked change in what was acceptable for women in terms of dress, social behaviors, and other factors overshadowed the earlier moral concerns.
Notably, though Gilbert did divorce her husband in 1897, she referred to herself as a widow in newspaper interviews and her listings in the Los Angeles City Directory—a striking alteration in her personal history compared to her professional work.
In 1928, Gilbert fell in the police department garage and badly injured her knees. While her doctor advised her to retire, she pressed on for another year or so until she could no longer ignore or try to work through her health issue. In October 1929, she retired to accolades for her pioneering work.
Gilbert’s retirement was, sadly, short-lived. Though she lived in south Los Angeles with her daughter, a former singer and performer, in late May 1931, Gilbert was driving in the Grapevine north of Los Angeles she collided with a truck that was loading and unloading construction material on the roadway. She died from internal injuries and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
Aletha Maxey Gilbert was a remarkable, if largely unknown, figure among Progressive reformers in Los Angeles. In the heavily male dominated field of law enforcement, she carved out a unique role at the time for herself as “City Matron” working with matters of young female sexual delinquency, venereal disease, and “white slavery,” while transitioning more to marital discord in her later work. She was a true pioneer in the role of women in police work, an achievement that Appier brings out with great detail and analysis in her fine book, which is well worth reading.