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When Women Couldn’t Be Deputies

And Then Along Came Louise


Guns and Badges: It was 1969. Jimmy Webster was Santa Barbara County sheriff. Isla Vista was aflame with anti-war turmoil. And the sheriff’s jail matrons were going to court.

The women felt that they were doing the same job as male jail deputies, and they wanted equal pay for equal work and to wear the badge.

Except that there were no women “deputies” and the county was putting up a stainless steel ceiling to keep them down.

Barney Brantingham

I covered the courts in the 1960s and liked Webster, but somehow he couldn’t accept the idea of a woman with a badge and a gun, out there battling the bad guys. And the county supervisors were good ol’ boys and no help. A different era, to be sure.

But they hadn’t reckoned with women like Louise Russell. I talked to her Monday about how she won that battle, and fought a later one against other good old boys when she wanted to join the Santa Barbara Elks club.

Russell and six other sheriff’s “matron-clerks” were outraged that they were doing the same work as deputies assigned to the old Courthouse jail but paid half as much. And as a single mom with five kids, she needed the money.

So they filed suit. Did the county hire them? No. Officials thwarted the suit by advertising that they intended to hire a female deputy, Russell said. Thirty-four women, including the present matrons, took the test, and 17 passed the rigorous exam. One was hired: Russell.

She showed me a copy of the letter appointing her on February 1, 1970, just in time for the Isla Vista riots. She became, in her words, “a token.” But her pioneering paved the way. “Four months later, they reclassified four matrons as deputies,” she said.

When the Isla Vista riots exploded later in 1970, “I was the only woman out there with 500 men” from various law enforcement agencies from around the state.

During her years as a deputy, she wrestled combative drunks, answered calls to burglaries in progress with her gun drawn, worked the jail, and drove around California, hauling prisoners back to court. She only weighed 148 pounds but had grown up with five brothers back in New Bedford, Mass. “I think that toughened me,” she laughed.

Louise Russell
Click to enlarge photo

Sue De Lapa

Louise Russell

What she considers the highlight of her career came in 1978, when Sheriff John Carpenter selected her to attend the FBI National Academy. But the hours were tough for a mom with growing children, so she applied to become a Superior Court bailiff, with its weekday shift. No way, vowed Presiding Judge Floyd Dodson, a tough World War II veteran, according to Russell. Not as long as he was presiding judge. But Dodson ran into controversy and was defeated for reelection, a rare event in Santa Barbara courts, where few judges are challenged on the ballot.

Russell then became the first female bailiff and was honored by Judge Patrick McMahon when she retired in 1987.

Her next battle came in 1996, when she tried to join the Santa Barbara Elks club. “It was nothing to do with women’s lib. I just wanted it so I could park my RV” in Elks lots when she traveled.

On the night of November 19, five men were voted into membership, but Russell was rejected by secret ballot. She needed, but failed to get, votes of at least two-thirds of the members, after having risked her neck for the community.

Always resourceful, she applied for and got membership in the Myrtle Creek, Oregon, club. Due to reciprocal benefits, she was free to use all Santa Barbara Elks facilities but not to vote. Two years ago, however, she transferred her membership here. And last year, the Santa Barbara Elks’ top post, exalted ruler, was held by a woman.

Russell is still trim at 78 and still delivering for Meals on Wheels (MOW) on the Riviera despite two hip replacements and a broken ankle, now healed. Russell and about 80 other Meals on Wheels volunteers were honored last weekend. As of June 1971, MOW delivers an average of 40,000 meals a year.

No Marimbas: Camerata Pacifica finished its season last weekend with a concert that featured no marimbas, which have shown up in recent concerts to the amusement of many. Next season starts in September, and I’m looking forward to the scary November lineup, which includes Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane and Caplet’s Conte fantastique, after Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. (Halloween?)

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