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Henry, Phylliss, 1940-



  • Existence: 1940-


Phylliss J. Henry was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1940. She graduated from Des Moines East High School in 1958, and married Earl Henry, who worked as a police officer for the Warren County Sheriff's Office; from 1961 to 1964, Phyllis Henry worked as a matron for that office. After her divorce in the late 1960s , Henry moved with her daughters, Shelly and Ellen, to Isla Vista, California, where she managed an apartment building from 1968 to 1970. She returned to Des Moines in 1971, and enrolled in a two-year law enforcement program at Des Moines Area Community College.

Although she originally intended to look for employment as a policewoman, the lack of job openings led Henry to apply for a patrolman position with the Des Moines Police Department (DMPD). Henry passed all agility tests and entrance exams, placing first on each of the five written exams she took, and met the department's height and weight requirements. She was hired in 1972. She was the first woman assigned to patrol duty on the Des Moines police force, and she met resistance from Chief of Police Nichols. During her ten years with the Des Moines Police Department, Henry actively challenged the sex discrimination she experienced.

In 1975 , Henry was promoted to Master Patrolman, a job title which was changed to Senior Police Officer in 1976, in compliance with a Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) ruling resulting from a complaint filed by Henry. This ruling required the DMPD to end hiring practices and the separation of job categories and lines of promotion that discriminated against women.

In 1977, Henry was reassigned to jail duty which, along with other circumstances , led her to explore the possibility of a lawsuit charging the DMPD with a broad pattern of discrimination against all female job applicants and personnel. She took her complaints to the LEAA, the Office of Revenue Sharing, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She later dropped her suit. In 1978, Henry was promoted to sergeant. In 1980 she was named to the board of the International Association of Women Police.

In 1982, Henry resigned from the police department. She spent a year working on the gubernatorial campaign of Roxanne Conlin (Henry's former attorney) and then enrolled at the University of Iowa to pursue a PhD in communications, which she received in 1988. Her dissertation, "The Role of War Stories in Organizational Culture," explores the practical, cognitive, social, emotional, and developmental functions of "war stories" within an urban police department. After receiving her PhD, Henry worked as a legal consultant with Starr and Associates in West Des Moines. In December 1990, after a battle with cancer , Henry began work as a support services manager for the Iowa State University Department of Public Safety.

In 1994, Henry was appointed by President Clinton to the office of U.S. Marshal for the southern district of Iowa. Iowa's U.S. Senator Tom Harkin initiated Henry's nomination. She was the first woman in Iowa, and one of the few nationwide, to hold the office of U.S. Marshal. Henry served in this capacity until 2001. After she retired, Henry moved to Arizona and began conducting interviews with women who have served in police departments and law enforcement agencies in Iowa. She donated the tapes and transcripts of these interviews to the Iowa Women's Archives, and they can be found in the Oral Histories of Iowa Police Women collection.


The Oral Histories of Iowa Policewomen were conducted by Phylliss Henry between 1997 and 2005. Henry, a former patrol officer with the Des Moines Police Department and a former U.S. marshal, began this project in 1997; she turned her full attention to it after retiring from law enforcement in 2001. The project documents the entry of women to Iowa's law enforcement agencies, especially police departments. These interviews describe the challenges women encountered when they entered police forces, the contributions made by women police officers, and the changes the police departments themselves underwent during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Oral Histories of Iowa Policewomen

Identifier: IWA0046

15 interviews and associated materials document the entry of women into Iowa's law enforcement agencies.

Dates: 1968-2005

Phylliss Henry papers

Identifier: IWA0044

First woman assigned to patrol duty on the Des Moines police force, serving from 1972 to 1982.

Dates: 1971-2004

Additional filters:

2001-2010 1
Algona (Iowa) 1
Archives (groupings) 1
Cedar Rapids (Iowa) 1
Correctional personnel 1