Gertrude Schimmel, who broke gender barriers in the New York Police Department as one of the first two women to become a sergeant and ultimately the first to be named a chief, died on Monday [May 10, 2015] at her home in Manhattan. She was 96. Her death was confirmed by her son Edward.
“Gertrude was a real trendsetter who not only broke a very significant glass ceiling in the department many years ago, but smashed through it,” Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said in a statement. When Ms. Schimmel joined the department on June 5, 1940, female officers could not be promoted above the entry-level post of policewoman, and they were not allowed to go out on patrol. In 1943, policewomen were issued a black shoulder bag with space for a holster but also a makeup kit. “Use the gun as you would your lipstick,” Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia said. “Don’t overdo either one.”
Like all female department members, Ms. Schimmel was assigned to the Bureau of Policewomen when she graduated from the Police Academy. In her early years with the department, her son said, she took part in undercover work breaking up gambling operations. She later joined the Youth Aid Division, which found temporary shelter for children whose parents were unable to care for them. It was the type of assignment given to women to keep them from confrontations with criminals.
If she had had such encounters, Ms. Schimmel might not have been all that intimidated. She was loud and clear when she had to be. “With a voice that could crush rocks and a conversational style colloquial, voluble and occasionally profane, she was the Ethel Merman of the Police Department,” Anna Quindlen wrote in The New York Times when Ms. Schimmel retired in 1981.
Ms. Schimmel maintained a difficult work schedule to keep up with child-rearing. Her husband encouraged her police work, but she usually took a double shift, 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., three times a week, so she could be home when her two sons left for school and when they returned. But her ambitions were undimmed. In 1961, Ms. Schimmel helped a fellow policewoman, Felicia Shpritzer, prepare a lawsuit against the city’s Department of Personnel contending that policewomen were illegally discriminated against by being denied a chance to take the promotional test for sergeant. Police Commissioner Michael J. Murphy maintained that women lacked the physical strength and endurance to be sergeants, but the city lost the court battle.
Ms. Shpritzer and Ms. Schimmel passed the test, gained their sergeant’s stripes in 1965, and were both promoted to lieutenant in 1967. Ms. Schimmel became the first woman to be a captain when Mayor John V. Lindsay and Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy pinned the bars on her uniform at City Hall on Aug. 26, 1971, the 51st anniversary of the day women won the right to vote. When Ms. Schimmel retired, she was a deputy chief, a rank she was promoted to in 1978, and commander of the Community Affairs unit. She expressed no regrets, but said she wished she had been able to take part in the kind of police work that had become routine for women.
“I myself never answered a call on the radio and ran up five flights of stairs and called the ambulance,” she said. “When I was starting in the department, women didn’t do that. And by the time they did it, I was already promoted. I’m sorry I missed that, but you can’t have everything, right?”
Born Gertrude Tannenbaum on Dec. 9, 1918, in the Bronx, she was the youngest of three children of immigrants from Austria. Her father, Asher, worked in a clothing factory, then owned a small egg business. Her mother, Ida, died when she was 16, leaving her with household responsibilities. She was an outstanding student at Morris High School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College. She wanted to become an English teacher, but jobs in the school system were scarce. So she took the police Civil Service test, passed it with ease and joined the department the next year despite her father’s misgivings.
“I thought he was against it because he felt it was dangerous or something like that,” Ms. Schimmel told Greta Walker in the book “Women Today: 10 Profiles” (1975). “Later, he said he was against it because he thought if I liked the career so much, I wouldn’t want to get married.”
Three months after entering the Police Department, she married Alfred Schimmel, a clerk with the city’s Tax Department, then got on with her career.
Hoping to encourage girls to become police officers, Ms. Schimmel wrote a novel, “Joan Palmer, Policewoman,” published by Dodd, Mead in 1960. While a captain, she helped lay the groundwork for the first assignments of women to street patrols and radio cars, which occurred in 1973. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the wives of some officers maintained that women were not capable of providing adequate backup for their male partners, but Ms. Schimmel would have none of that. “Nothing is factual, it’s all emotional,” she told The Times in November 1974, when she was promoted to a full inspector’s rank seven months after being named commanding officer of the department’s Public Information Division. “The men make allowances for each other. They won’t tell you about the men they don’t want to work with.”
In addition to her son Edward, Ms. Schimmel is survived by a sister, Frances Weinstein, and four grandchildren. Her husband, Alfred, died in 2006, and her other son, Victor, died in 2000.
Her pioneering colleague Felicia Shpritzer retired as a lieutenant in 1976 and died in 2000 at 87.
Ms. Schimmel was an avid poker player who competed in professional events into her last years. Her retirement party was held on a memorable date for women’s rights: Sept. 25, 1981, when Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female Supreme Court justice.
Ms. Schimmel reflected at the time on the struggle for women’s rights, and she wondered whether fledgling police officers were aware of battles past. “If you go to the Police Academy today and ask any young man or woman when you had promotion for women officers in the department, they’d probably think it was from time immemorial,” she said. “I was in the department 24 years before I even got into the sergeant’s test. I don’t know how much the recruits today know about past history.”
We honor you, Gertrude Schimmel.