Fanchon Blake dies at 93; lawsuit broke LAPD's glass ceiling for women

Fanchon Blake, whose lawsuit forced the LAPD to open its upper ranks to women, has died at 93

In 1971, after nearly two decades with the Los Angeles Police Department, Fanchon Blake openly objected to policies that prevented her and other women from rising above the rank of sergeant.

Then-Chief Ed Davis belittled her stance at a meeting of female officers, making it clear he felt real police work should be done by men. One drawback to women on the force, he said, was that they have "monthlies."

Blake didn't respond, but was furious. "You don't know it, Chief," she later wrote in her unpublished autobiography, "But war has just been declared between us."

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FOR THE RECORD:

Fanchon Blake obituary: In the May 3 California section, the obituary of former policewoman Fanchon Blake referred to a famed writer on police matters as James Wambaugh. He is Joseph Wambaugh. —
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She won the war.

Blake, 93, whose class-action lawsuit targeting the LAPD resulted in one of the most sweeping changes in the department's history, died Tuesday at a group home in Bend, Ore.

She had a series of falls and was in declining health, said her niece, Shelly Maurice-Maier.

When the Blake Consent Decree, resulting from her lawsuit, went into effect in 1981, there were about 175 women on the force. By 2010, when she was honored at a Police Academy function, there were nearly 2,000, and many of the officers held high ranks, including an assistant chief.

That progress, however, was not quite good enough for Blake. "I wanted to be chief of police," she declared. The crowd cheered.

LAPD chief Charlie Beck acknowledged that female officers still faced prejudice. "Women not only do at least as well as men in this job," he said at the event, "they do it with an extra burden."

The chief's attitude was in sharp contrast to when Blake filed her lawsuit in 1973 through the nonprofit Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles.

"We were thrilled to have had this person come to us to work on this case," said Eleanor Shellard, who at the time was a paralegal with the group. But they warned her that there could be consequences at work.

Blake knew that, and didn't care.

"We slowly, through the years figured out they weren't going to promote us," she said in a 2011 videotaped interview. "They insulted me one too many times, and that's when I decided, 'Hey, this isn't worth it.'

"They fire me, they fire me. So what?"

Blake wasn't fired, but the backlash came quickly. On the day her lawsuit hit the news, she found that her desk in the investigations unit had been cleaned out and she'd been moved to the reception area. "I was ostracized, given a receptionist's job, basically," she said in a 1990 Times interview.

Male officers wouldn't speak to her and one day when she got sick at work, no one would drive her to see a doctor. It turned out she had had a mild stroke.

Less than a year after filing the suit, Blake quit the force and took private security jobs.

The case continued slowly through the courts. In 1977, a federal judge in Los Angeles handed down a decision that favored the LAPD. But two years later the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling.

When the state Supreme Court let the appeals court decision stand, Blake was victorious.

Consent decrees were forged to allow not only more women, but also more racial minorities to join the LAPD, and obstacles to promotion, including height requirements, were modified. No less an observer than bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh, who had been on the force, said it changed the culture of the LAPD.

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FOR THE RECORD

May 3, 8:54 a.m.: An earlier version of this obituary referred to bestselling author James Wambaugh. His name is Joseph.

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"Blake did a great service when she sued the city," Wambaugh said in a 1991 Times interview. "I think female cops can go a long way toward helping to mitigate the super-aggressive, paramilitary macho myth of the gung-ho cop and introducing the sobering element of maturity in police work."

She was born Fanchon Gesford on May 15, 1921, in Huntsville, Utah. Her family moved a few years later to the remote White Oak Lodge area in the Tehachapi Mountains in California where they homesteaded. "I spent three of the happiest years of my life there," she told the Associated Press in 2009. Her beloved dog was her main companion and she went to a one-room schoolhouse.

She served in the Army from 1942 to 1948, reaching the rank of major, and then joined the LAPD. She was re-inducted into the Army in 1951 to help with an internal drug investigation in Japan. She returned to the LAPD in 1953.

Her first two marriages ended in divorce; her third was to Shannon Blake, who died in Manhattan Beach in 1981. During the time her suit was making its way through the courts, Fanchon Blake moved to the Pacific Northwest and began a relationship with a woman that continued for about 15 years before they broke up.

Her legacy lives on at the LAPD Police Academy, where the women's training facility is co-dedicated to her.

But one of the most moving acknowledgments of her accomplishments happened at the 2010 event when then-Assistant Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur approached Blake. MacArthur took the stars denoting her rank from her uniform and pinned them on Blake's jacket.

Blake, a cop so tough she took on an entire police department, wept.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

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