Female Investigators of the 1950s by Delphine Boswell

Delphine Boswell

A common misconception is to consider the profession of private investigator as a man’s job rather than that of a woman. Minds automatically conjure images of fictional characters seen on TV or the movies such as Sherlock Holmes, Lieutenant Columbo, or Perry Mason. Statistics from a 2020 report state that among United States licensed private investigators, 33.6% are women, while 60.8% are men.

There are some examples, however, of early female investigators. Kate Warne was hired as the first female detective of the Pinkerton Detective Agency (1856) and, eventually, earned her own office; Maude West was London’s only female investigator (1905); and Isabella Goodwin was New York’s first woman detective (1910). Fictional characters who share the limelight for historic investigators are Miss Marble (1930), Trixie Belden (1948), and Nancy Drew (1986) to name only a few.

Many women during this time period were homemakers. Men went out to work and many had a misogynist view of women. Males were seen as breadwinners and rule-makers. To be a professional, working woman in a patriarchal society meant being courageous enough to stand apart from the norm.

Even stay-at-home women thought lowly of those who chose careers, believing women should be home raising a family, baking chocolate-chip cookies, and attending to their husband’s every need. Television episodes such as Leave It to Beaver or the Donna Reed Show present images of women in frilly aprons choosing to look like Betty Furness, or women greeting their husbands at the door in spiked heels and fancy dresses. These types of shows spoke to the role of women as less than significant compared to the jobs held by men in gray flannel suits.

It was common during this time for men to devalue the worth of the female gender and to see the male role as superior. Whistling at a woman or shouting “cat calls” are examples of men who overtly addressed women more as objects than equals.

In addition to working against these stereotypes, women investigators of the 50s had their own share of discrimination. In competitive positions such as this, women who worked alongside male colleagues were presented with their own challenges. Back then, there were no such things as sexual harassment cases resulting in legal battles or “Me Too” movements. Men in the office were allowed to make sexual innuendos. “His eyes peered down at her, his gaze landing on her double-breasted jacket”; or “He eyed her from head-to-toe and back again”; and lest we forget, the acceptable little pat on the butt.

Methods of solving crimes in the 50s were much different than today due to the lack of technology that we now have. Murderers, today and then, were often identified through fingerprints using a tape lift method. Of course, today there is an automated fingerprint identification system with computerized scans of prints developed in the 1970s by the FBI.

Investigators in the 50s primarily relied upon interviewing, usually more than once, of such groups as school personnel, community leaders, and family. Much of their clue gathering was through close observation of body language and facial expressions. Sometimes, the only way to learn more about the mystery was in eavesdropping.  Coroners, newspaper accounts, and microfiche articles often provided additional information. There were times where these women subjected themselves to danger when they had personal interactions with possible suspects. Grave sites and burial techniques were studied to determine possible missing links in their cases.

The personal traits a private investigator had to have are not that much different than today. They needed to be clear-headed in order to place their emphasis on details others might not see; to be inquisitive, asking personal and often touchy subject matters; and fearless so as not to be afraid of confronting suspects face-to-face.

As far as female investigators are concerned, they have been found to be more comforting and able to put people at ease. They are more easily accepted into one’s home than a man. In the end, female investigators, although often treated differently by men, are less assuming. Women can easily go undercover in terms of surveillance and appear less confrontational than their male counterparts.

In general, women of the 50s lived in a challenging time, but to those who chose to follow a career path other than homemaking, such as an investigator, they were faced with many more obstacles to overcome. Historical characters such as Kate Warne, Maude West, and Isabella Goodwin prove that, ultimately, women can successfully compete in a predominately male profession.

Delphine Boswell expresses her fondness for writing with the words of John Steinbeck, “I nearly always write just as I nearly always breathe.”  For her, writing is not a job, not a career, but a passion that excites her more than anything else she has ever done.

In the past thirteen years, she has written several novels in a multitude of genres, consisting of suspense, mystery, psychological horror, and dystopian fiction.  All of her writing has a dark tone to it, and it is not any wonder that one of Delphine’s favorite authors is Joyce Carol Oates.  In addition to novels, Delphine has had a multitude of short stories published. From 80,000 word novels to a Hemingway six-word contest in which she won first place, and to everything in between, Delphine cannot stay away from her love of writing.

Once an idea comes to her, she sees it as bookends: a beginning and an end.  Her next step is to find her cast of characters who, she claims, become so familiar that she believes she could identify them if they were to walk down the street.  Delphine has an easy-going writing style in that she allows her characters total free will.  At this point, she likes to think of herself as a scribe who records the dialogues, the inner monologues, and actions of her characters as quickly as they respond to the circumstances they create.  Often, this means they will find themselves up against a wall, but somehow, they always find a way out and, sometimes, they even take it upon themselves to change the ending for her.

Delphine also taught college students about the art and believed that she had accomplished her goal if her students left the classroom with a joy of writing.