Personality

Women at the helm of New York City’s uniformed agencies

The first female commissioner of the Department of Correction was also the first woman to head a major city agency in 1914.

Laura Kavanagh is the first woman to lead the New York City Fire Department.

Laura Kavanagh is the first woman to lead the New York City Fire Department. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography office

Before he took office in January, New York City Mayor Eric Adams made a slew of promises on the campaign trail, including a commitment to appoint a woman to head the New York City Police Department for the first time ever. That’s a promise Adams promptly followed through on, choosing Keechant Sewell to lead the department of some 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees.

Two of New York City’s other uniformed agencies – the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Correction – had already had female commissioners, with the latter seeing a woman at its helm before women even had the right to vote. The only remaining outlier has been the Fire Department of New York – until last month, when Adams appointed Laura Kavanagh to be the city’s first female fire commissioner.

The city’s uniformed agencies have traditionally been dominated by men, and largely still are. Roughly 80% of active NYPD officers are male, just over 1% of New York City firefighters are women, and as of 2020 roughly 3.5% of the sanitation department’s uniformed employees were female. Women are better represented in the Department of Correction, where women accounted for 41% of correction officers as of 2018. Today, the commissioners of these agencies are all female, with the exception of DOC Commissioner Louis Molina.

Take a look back at the long road to female leadership of the city’s major uniformed agencies.

Katharine Bement Davis

Katharine Bement Davis
Katharine Bement Davis. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Penologist, social worker and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis was appointed the first female correction commissioner in New York City in 1914, and in doing so became the first woman to head any major New York City agency. Davis entered the post with a reform mindset and was credited with reducing drug trafficking in the city’s penal institutions. Davis was also a eugenicist, telling The New York Times in 1914, “There we must go slowly,” when asked about eugenics. “We cannot yet lay down a code of general laws. But the general interest is encouraging.”

Emily Lloyd

Emily Lloyd
Emily Lloyd (center). Photo credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, 2014

Emily Lloyd was named the first female commissioner of the Department of Sanitation by Mayor David Dinkins in 1992. Lloyd stepped down in mid-1994, after Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office. As sanitation commissioner, Lloyd created a citywide recycling program, and she later served as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio. The sanitation department has since had two more female heads – Kathryn Garcia, appointed in 2014, and current Commissioner Jessica Tisch. 

Keechant Sewell

Keechant Sewell
Keechant Sewell. Photo credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Keechant Sewell was plucked from the Nassau County Police Department to become the first female police commissioner in New York City, also becoming the first Black woman to lead the department. Going on a year in the post, Sewell has faced intensifying fears about crime, including in the city’s subway system

Laura Kavanagh

Laura Kavanagh
Laura Kavanagh. Photo credit: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Laura Kavanagh has served as acting fire commissioner since February but it was only last month that Adams made it official, appointing the former de Blasio administration staffer as the first female commissioner of the department. Kavanagh has climbed up the ranks at the FDNY since 2014, but never worked as a firefighter. Other women in top administration posts, including Sewell and Tisch, appeared with Adams to announce Kavanagh’s appointment.

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