A Tribute to Penny Harrington

Posted By Marion Gold

Penny Harrington faced discrimination and harassment, personal tragedies and triumphs as she battled a male-dominated system to be named Chief of Police of the Portland Police Bureau in 1985.

She is the first woman in America to have led a major metropolitan police force. A hero and celebrity to some, and a maverick to others, Penny led the way for all women who strive for equality.

To me she is a woman of valor and distinction. I first met Penny while attending an annual meeting of the National Center for Women and Policing in 1998, an organization she helped found as a division of the Feminist Majority Foundation. I later interviewed Penny for my book, "Top Cops: Profiles of Women in Command."

I learned that in 1964, when Penny joined the Portland Oregon Police Bureau, she was assigned to the women’s division—the only place women in policing were women permitted to work. She fought her way up the ranks, filing an astounding 42 civil rights complaints—and winning virtually all of them. She became the bureau’s first woman sergeant, lieutenant, and captain.

In 1985, with a record of major achievements in the community and in the bureau, and a reputation for fighting for the rights of minorities, she was named the first woman police chief of a major city in the United States.

Also during that interview, Penny mentioned she was writing her memoirs – as a writer and publisher, I eagerly made an offer: I bought the rights to Penny’s fascinating story. In 1999 Brittany Publications, Ltd., proudly published Penny’s inspiring and intimate autobiography, “Triumph of Spirit.”

Women who enter policing today owe a great debt to this special lady, largely because of the precedent-setting civil rights complaints she filed in Portland, along with the amazing women who worked with her – and others who followed her in her footsteps around the country. And she had the fortitude and courage to write about it.

In her book, Penny said: “I think that’s what we’re all here to do—to make a difference, to leave this place better than we found it. You have to be willing to put yourself on the line—and you are going to pay a price. But you can do more than survive it. You can triumph....”

No one ever promised Penny her journey would be easy. But she believed in her struggle, and did her very best to lead others to success. As Penny put it, “ …From prowl cars and city sidewalks, to Congress and the White House—a woman’s place is everywhere.”

Thank you, Penny – for having the courage to speak out on behalf of so many women around the world who treasure the precious gift you gave to womankind.