Updated: Jul 24
Editor’s Note: In the first of two posts which offer new additions to former ‘Points’ feature ‘Hidden Figures of Drug History‘ Bob Beach explores the colorful career of Elizabeth Bass prior to her role as a G-Man within the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Left: Poster for 1935 film ‘G Men’
The origins of the term “G-MAN” are a little vague, but according to Wikipedia, the term was coined in either the late twenties or early thirties, and was used to reference the federal law-enforcement agent (the “government man”). In the 1930s, G-men began appearing regularly in comic books, radio serials, and dime-novels.
As symbols of heroic masculinity, the narrative of the government man that played out over the following decades fit well within the context of a society grappling with its emerging international superpower status. The intense, often violent (and legally questionable) encounters between fictional G-men and the “bad guys” was a trope that remains popular, blending the humility of “service” to the country with the grim realities of fighting the shadowy forces of organized crime. This trope was even adopted by the real G-men. The way stories about crime and the narcotic menace in the press utilized these tropes to amplify the importance of government-led policing efforts is widely recognized.
Elizabeth Bass (right)
Elizabeth Bass, who is credited on the DEA’s website as the “First Female Special Agent” as supervisor of the Chicago office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), operated in classic G-man style, routinely leading federal agents on drug raids heroically reported in the press. But she lacked the hard-scrabble pedigree lauded in the G-man trope. Once described as a “gray-haired…tiny woman with the well-groomed appearance of a society dowager,” she was seventy-two years old and had zero police experience when she started her post at the FBN. But she was arguably the most politically visible and influential federal narcotics agents in the country.
Elizabeth Bass was not remembered for her many firsts as a woman in national politics, she doesn’t appear on any lists of “prominent suffragists,” and doesn’t get much mention in reference sources. She’s mentioned briefly in works covering drug history, but the depth of her contribution, and her career track, remains undersold. Her entry in the 2013 edition of Alcohol and Drugs in North America: A Historical Encyclopedia describes her as a person who would “not warrant a place in this encyclopedia on the basis of her career through the 1920s, significant as it was.”
As it turns out, her career leading up to her appointment to the Chicago office of the FBN is important to understanding her role as a federal agent. Little information is readily available about her past. She was born in Maine, educated in Wisconsin, and started her career as a law clerk in Chicago. She married Chicago attorney George P. Bass in 1894. Amid the reformism of the Progressive Era, Bass took up several causes regarding the welfare of children, and divorce, early on in her career, but she made her political career through her participation in the suffrage movement.
From at least 1914, she was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1916, she became President of the Chicago Women’s Club and emerged as a force in Democratic party politics in Illinois. She led efforts to get out the women’s vote (limited to twelve states) for Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Early on, Bass’s ability to rally votes and galvanize public support would be key to her career at the FBN.
The national Democratic Party took notice, appointing Bass as the director of the Women’s Bureau of the Democratic National Committee. She became the first woman appointed to a key position in the Democratic Party. As a booster for the party, travelling through the Midwest, she participated in key debates regarding the role of women in the internal workings of the party. And while she often noted her “particular pride…in the Democratic national organization” for including women, she didn’t hesitate to publicly critique the party for not fully including women on an entirely good faith basis, in the decision-making of the party.
When Tennessee clinched the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in August 1920, Bass applauded the efforts of the Democratic party with galvanizing the states to support Suffrage. The previous month, she had been a significant voice in supporting the candidacy of James M. Cox for president during the Democratic National Convention, briefly presiding over the convention (achieving another “first” for women in that role) during one of the votes. Following the convention she led a national campaign to rally women to the Democratic ticket.
Following Cox’s loss, Bass continued to work with the Democratic National Committee to promote the political participation of women. In 1923, she was part of a group of women who created a “National School of Democracy,” a series of lectures held in late January and early February of that year. Bass gave lessons on public speaking, “with particular reference to its relationship to women in politics.”
In what, in the conventional sense, should have been her last gig at the age of 71, she was “among the most enthusiastic cheerers” at the 1932 DNC, stumping for Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination. Her emeritus status was affirmed as they called her “Dean Elizabeth” throughout the proceedings. Along with other women at the convention, Bass’s contributions to Roosevelt’s election were applauded in the press. Noted was the contribution to shifting the balance of political power from the east to the Midwest in the years following the 19th amendment. By 1936, the national committee’s inclusion of women in the platform process during Roosevelt’s re-election campaign (as limited as it was) is a testament to women’s work in prior elections, and Bass was a central figure in pushing this transformation.
But she wasn’t done. A year later, in 1933, President Roosevelt would use an executive order to appoint Bass to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the age of 72. With no police experience at all, Bass would be put in charge of the Chicago office and supervise upward of 40 agents. Elizabeth Bass’s second transformation, into the putatively hardscrabble G-man, leading her agents on raids, is a fascinating study in gender and politics during the early years of U.S. Drug Enforcement. In a future post, I’ll dive deeper into her career at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
 “Aggressive Drive Against Traffic in Drugs Starts,” The Daily Illini, 8 December 1934.
 Charles Whitebread and Richard Bonnie, The Marijuana Conviction: A History of Marijuana. (New York: Lindesmith Center, 1999), p.95
 “Suffragists Stop Attacks on Parties,” New York Times, 17 November 1914.
 “Women’s Hopes High on Wilson’s Pledge,” New York Times, 10 September 1916; “Wilson and Hughes Women in Debate,” New York Times, 5 November 1916.
 “Woman Organizer Coming,” Terre Haute Tribune, 8 June 1917; “Women Democrats Form Organization,” New York Times, 5 February 1920; “Suffragists Split by Party Politics,” New York Times, 13 February 1920; “Suffragists Count on North Carolina,” New York Times, 11 April 1920.
 “Gives Democrats Credit,” New York Times, 21 August 1920; “Democratic Women’s Day,” New York Times, 3 October 1920.
 “Women Democrats Ready,” New York Times, 11 May 1920; “How Day Ballots Swayed,” New York Times, 4 July 1920; a reference to Bass’s chairpersonship can be found in “Mrs. Wilson Thanks Baker for Speech,” New York Times, 2 July 1924.
 “Predicts Women Will ‘Rescue the League,’” The New York Times, 31 October 1920.
 “Women will Open School of Democracy,” New York Times, 1 January 1923; “Democracy School Opens Tomorrow,” New York Times, 28 January 1923.
 “Democratic Women Brighten Chicago,” New York Times, 21 June 1932; “Women Democrats Put Spirit in Fight,” New York Times, 25 June 1932; “Bread Lines First, In Women’s Opinion,” New York Times, 26 June 1932; “How Women at the Convention took the Decision,” San Bernardino Sun, 4 July 1932.
 “Fair Campaigners Hold Spotlight,” New York Times, 28 June 1932.
 “Women Taking Active Part in Drafting Party Policies,” New York Times, 23 June 1936.
Feature image credit: ‘G-Men’ opening title for 1935 Warner Bros film ‘G Men’ starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak, Margaret Lindsay and Lloyd Nolan