Leslie Knope would’ve been proud of my great-grandmother

Marguerite "Safety Boss" Johnson

Marguerite “Safety Boss” Johnson

By Broek Johnson

Marguerite C. Brousseau Johnson is one of my lady heroes. Back in the 1950s, trailblazer and “Safety Boss” Marguerite was the only woman in the nation at the time to control all the safety operations of Dearborn, Michigan, which ranked among the safest in the nation. Her official title, Director of Public Safety in Dearborn, meant she supervised the police, fire, and communications departments of Michigan’s then fourth largest city. In her own words “I’m sort of a go-between for the mayor, the city council, the police, fire, and communications departments. But I’m not a gun-toting policewoman.”  In the words of the then Mayor “Mrs. Johnson was the ideal type of public servant—able and with unusual drive and enthusiasm for public service. She had her heart and soul wrapped up in Dearborn.” Leslie Knope would’ve had a framed photo of Marguerite in her office if she knew about her. I know about her because she’s my great grandmother. 

All through her public career she was known as a “battler”. Marguerite held a prominent and decisive role in Dearborn political affairs in which she was a “colorful and controversial figure.” In 1936, she led the movement which created the women’s division of the police department. In 1946, she was appointed the first woman member of the City Recreation Commission. During World War II, Marguerite worked with servicemen’s organizations and was a leader in the campaign to establish the Dearborn Veterans Bureau. She was the first woman elected to the City Council in 1947, re-elected in 1949 and was selected by her colleagues as President for 1950 and 1951. She was part of a group known around Dearborn as the Big Four (Councilman Joseph M. Ford, Councilman Martin C.Griffith, Councilman George W. Bondie and Councilwoman Marguerite C. Johnson) which helped shape Dearborn into one of the best cities in the country to live in at the time. Marguerite was head of the Dearborn police and fire departments from 1952 up until her passing in 1959 at the age of 57 due to lung cancer. 

Marguerite was an innovative and singular individual as Director of Public Safety and attracted “world-wide attention for her woman’s approach to a field dominated by men”. She used German shepherd police dogs for police work and was famous for painting police cars with “Easter egg colors”. (Flair!) Among her accomplishments as safety director were the replacement of police horses by steel and glass traffic control towers, the mugging of suspects on colored movie film, and completion of plans for a new police-fire-communications headquarters built in the Civic Center. (Creativity!) She also banned Dearborn police and fire field days because she said merchants were being shaken down for tickets and donations. (Fought corruption!)

What I learned

It’s both humbling and emboldening to know that such fierce drive is in my DNA but a bit disheartening that even these days there are still challenges to achieving prominence or power among female leaders. Once when asked why there weren’t more women in her field, Marguerite said “Maybe there aren’t more women in this type of business because it is hard on their husbands. That’s my only regret about this job. I’m convinced a woman’s place is in the home but I only get to spend about eight hours a day there, and sometimes it is even less.”

What’s genius about this comment is the lack of judgement. She didn’t blame or disparage women for lack of ambition or capability or for staying at home but because it was “hard on their husbands”. She knew social expectation of women and of her role personally and professionally. I love the boss lady turn-around answer where she basically says “I’m convinced women should be at home but I have so much work to do I don’t get to! I wish I could! Sorry!” She knew the status quo and graciously side-stepped the commentary and opinions and went about doing what she loved.  

In short

Be a boss. Be a battler. Be colorful and controversial. Paint things Easter egg colors. Pave the way for other women. 

“Obituary: Marguerite Johnson” Dearborn Press, March, 1959
“Safety Boss Is A Homebody— When She Finds The Time” Dearborn Press
Wikipedia contributors. “Joseph M. Ford.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.

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