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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Husband & Wife Sheriffs

Last week we featured a father-son senatorial team. This week we highlight married partners working as a political team. Our state's first female sheriff was elected in 1924 in Burnett County. This event, which on the surface seems like a huge step for women's rights, was actually just the latest twist in a clever ploy that male sheriffs had been using for years to circumvent term limits.

Flip-Flopping Sheriffs

From 1848 until the 1960s, Wisconsin law stated that no sheriff could hold office indefinitely. This was intended to prevent too much power from concentrating in the hands of any one person. To get around the law, local sheriffs often appointed under-sheriffs to assist them, and these pairs would flip-flop terms. This way, candidates assured voters an experienced team of county law enforcement officers while guaranteeing themselves perpetual employment.

It was only a small step for a sitting sheriff to appoint his spouse under-sheriff and keep the job in the family.

For over a decade, beginning in 1924, Burnett Co. Sheriff Charles Saunders and wife Hannah retained the office this way. He would serve one two-year term with Hannah as his under-sheriff, and then Hannah would run for election to the next two-year term with Charles as her under-sheriff.

Hannah Saunders, like the many women who came after her in these husband and wife sheriff teams, didn't perform any of the actual policing. Charles still handled the law enforcement duties while she performed a managerial role around the office, keeping records and watching prisoners.

The Start of a Tradition

Saunders was the first woman sheriff in Wisconsin, but she was far from the last.

Over the next 40 years, many more followed her, all of them (until the 1980s) serving openly as surrogates for their husbands or campaigning as joint partners. Gloria Bridenhagen, elected Door Co. sheriff in 1966, considered herself a stay-at-home mom who was running "just to keep my husband in office." Many people in the county referred to her as the "First Lady of the County" rather than as sheriff.

Bridenhagen was very proud of her badge -- "the most important piece of jewelry I've ever had" -- but when asked if she carried a gun replied laughingly, "Oh heavens, no" and noted that her husband hadn't carried one either. She nonetheless felt "pretty important" on the two or three times a month when she went to the office to sign papers and legal documents.

Bridenhagen believed that the other tag-team women sheriffs never considered themselves professionals either, and scoffed at the notion that they were forerunners of today's women police officers. She seemed truly shocked that anyone would compare her with today's professionals: "Today women are becoming police officers for themselves," she observed.

To learn more about Wisconsin's husband-and-wife sheriff teams, as well as about the first women professionals in law enforcement, see "Married to the Job" in the Spring 2003 Wisconsin Magazine of History, which includes pictures, interviews, and campaign brochures.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on June 11, 2013
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