History of women in the police force

Women Police Officers 1970   DC Police   Devon and Cornwall Police
Uniforms through the ages:
Edith Smith 1880-1924 first official police woman in the British Isles
Lincolnshire Local History
Miss Mary Hare In 1915 Hare took the law into her own hands and set up a uniformed women's police force - against the wishes of the local constabulary - as she felt there was a need for a female force to assist Brighton and Hove's vulnerable women and children.
Anna Kisby, Brighton History Centre
Checking the trains 1918
Transport police
Mrs Sophia Stanley and the first Metropolitan police women
History by the Yard
Annie Matthews at Hyde Park
History by the Yard
World War II publicity shot
Bertha Massey Gleghorn, then just 33, was Britain's first woman police officer to die in the line of duty.
Police Roll of Honour Trust
Sophia Stanley
Metropolitan Police Authority
WPC 18 Ellis and Inspector Clayden patrolling outside Bow Street Police Station, 1924.
International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice

In 1918 the first woman was appointed as a police officer in the Brighton force

A straight chronological history of the role and place of women in the police forces of England and Wales doesn’t really tell the whole story. It’s far better to look at the values and attitudes towards women, women in the work place and women performing policing duties. Without a doubt, two world wars, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay act are in large measure responsible for the promotion of women in police forces around the country including Sussex.

‘No, not even if the war lasts 50 years’

When a male police officer was asked in 1916 whether women would ever be police constables, he burst out laughing, replying: ‘No, not even if the war lasts 50 years’. However, the Women’s Police Service, made up of volunteers, had been founded in 1914. In 1918 women aged 30 and over were given the Vote for the first time and by the end of that year the Home Secretary (Viscount Cave – Sir George Cave) ordered Sir Nevil Macready, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to recruit women into the police force.

Metropolitan Police in 1919

The first women police officers joined the Metropolitan Police in 1919, although Sir Nevil Macready insisted he did not want any ‘vinegary spinsters’ or ‘blighted middle-aged fanatics’ in its ranks’. He authorised a nucleus of 110 women police to be attached to the Metropolitan Police. He drew his recruits from the Voluntary Women Patrols rather than the Women’s Police Service which, though more professional, had a cadre of former militant suffragettes. In 1919 the first ‘Metropolitan Police Women Patrols’ took to the streets of London, led by Mrs Sofia Stanley, superintendent in charge, assisted by Mrs Elinor Robinson and three sergeants, Grace Russell, Patty Alliot and Lilian Wyles, each looking after one of London’s three districts.

Sex Disqualification Removal Act

Also in 1919 the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was passed ensuring women’s entry into the professions. For the first time women could become lawyers, vets and civil servants.   The ‘lady policemen’ were reluctantly accepted, but they weren’t allowed on patrol. These women had to face not only face danger from crooks and thieves, but also ridicule from the public and the chauvinist rantings of senior policemen who told them they ought to be at home in their kitchens.

‘We shouldn’t underestimate what these pioneers achieved,’ says writer – and former WPC302C – Joan Lock, author of The British Policewoman, History of Women in the Force.They were very courageous. They were determined to do their duty. ‘These days, it’s impossible to imagine what a police force would be like without women.’

When the first 25 police women appeared on the streets of London they were required to patrol in pairs, followed at a distance of 6 to 10 yards by two tough uniformed policemen, who were given strict orders not to let the women out of their sight, and to go to their aid at once if they were in trouble.


In 1920 the Baird Committee (its Chairman, John Baird, was then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office) reviewed the whole question of the employment of policewomen in peacetime, and concluded that the experience of the war had proved their value in undertaking police duties which hitherto had been exclusively performed by men

In 1922, in order to save money during the depression, the Home Secretary, Sir Edward Shortt proposed the complete abolition of the women’s section of the Metropolitan Police. His insistence that the work of women police was

‘welfare work … not proper’, and that they only kept crime down ‘with the sense in which the schoolmaster keeps down crime, and the clergyman and the Sunday-school teacher’consideration should be given to appointing women

Consideration should be given to appointing women

In 1924 the Home Secretary sent a letter to all police authorities suggesting that consideration should be given to appointing women officers to deal with cases involving women and children. However, a representative of the Police Committee of the Association of Municipal Corporations gave evidence that there was no general public demand for the extended employment of policewomen, and urged that the whole question was one that should be left to the discretion of the local authorities. The County Councils’ Association, in a letter addressed to the Committee, expressed the opinion that so far as county areas were concerned the employment of women was unnecessary. Similarly, three representatives of the Police Federation expressed a general opposition to the employment of women in the Police Service, holding the view that such work as they were able to do would be better done by independent organisations in touch with the police.

The committee looking into the role of women found that any benefit of employing women as police officers was solely linked to a role in ‘saving growing girls from temptation’, which they concluded was a police responsibility. It was believed at the time that a connection existed between sexual immorality and offence against the law, and that the emancipation of women brought about by the World War I had exacerbated an existing problem and had ‘most certainly forced it on the notice of many who enjoyed a happy ignorance about such evils’.

Sir Nevil Macready, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, submitted a letter to the Committee, stating his ideal female police recruit:

‘The main point was to eliminate any women of extreme views – the vinegary spinster or blighted middle-aged fanatic – and to get broad-minded, kindly, sensible women who would bring to bear commonsense in their dealings with their sisters who had taken a wrong turning, more often from a desire to lighten a dull existence than from inherent vice.’

The Committee agreed whole-heartedly with his opinions, but also warned of the dangers of employing very young female police officers for fear that they would become ‘hard and superficial’ through early and repeated exposure to sexual offences and would lack the very qualities for which their presence in the Force was required.

Dealing primarily with women and children

The use of the Women Police was justified in terms of their special role in policing ie dealing primarily with women and children. From their inception, women police were involved in patrol work (especially parks and open spaces), escort duty (looking after juvenile and female prisoners) and hospital duty.

Between 1929 and 1931 the situation of women police officers improved marginally with the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedure in 1929, and in October 1931 the Home Office issued a set of regulations defining the function and status of policewomen wherever and whenever they were employed; but there was still no compulsion to recruit women and many continued to believe that police work was men’s work and that women in police uniform somehow lost their femininity.

National Service Handbook

In 1939 the Government’s recently published National Service Handbook had no plans for enrolling women as special constables, a fact that reflected the indifference of the Home Office and most chief constable to the value of policewomen. A Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, instituted in August 1939, for women between the ages of 18 and 55 was the result. In the early part of the war the women were allowed to carry out only a restricted range of police duties, which typically included the driving and maintenance of motor transport, and clerical, telephone, radio, and canteen work, but many were later attested as constables, so that their duties expanded over the whole range of law enforcement.

The uniform

The presence of uniformed female officers on the streets was striking. Indeed, former officers recalled having their photographs taken by tourists well into the 1950s. The uniform was modelled on that of male officers. It was very uncomfortable to wear, and deliberately created to invest its wearer with authority.

In the mid-1970’s occupational segregation was still perfectly legal, with female officers having a separate rank structure within their own departments. Women were often located in a separate part of the building, with their own offices and changing facilities, and a similarly segregated set of tasks to carry out. With the introduction of the Equal Pay Act (1970) and Sex Discrimination Act (1975) women officers were amalgamated with the men on all shifts and departments.

Developing roles

In the years prior to 1973, women officers were working a 7½ hour day and one week of nights in 12 usually, but received only 90% of men’s pay. People inside and outside police circles considered that the Women’s Police Service had developed highly specialist skills with women and children. Male officers reported being glad to hand over complex cases involving women and children to their female colleagues in the knowledge they would be handled with a greater level of knowledge and skill. Nevertheless, some female officers felt they were typecast in this role and had no interest in, nor personal experience of, these matters.

Almost a quarter of police officers in England and Wales – and just over a quarter in Scotland – are now women.

Have attitudes changed toward women police officers? Well not a lot if this article in the Guardian is anything to go by.

‘The sight of two women on the beat is still surprising. The police continues  to be a male-dominated profession – in 2010, over 36,000 out of 143,770 officers in England and Wales were women, a quarter of the total. Although great advances have been made – by comparison, women made up only 7% of the force in 1977 – the deaths of PC Bone and PC Hughes raised questions about public attitudes towards women in the police.

‘It was telling that, in much of the media coverage, the dead officers were referred to routinely as “WPC” in spite of the fact that the prefix “Woman” was phased out in 1999. There was the senior policeman who, numb with grief, referred to his colleagues as “two young girls”, and the passers-by who questioned why a man hadn’t been sent out with them – as if a man could have intuited greater danger on a routine callout or provided a bulletproof shield to his female co-worker.’

‘It’s the kind of sexist attitude that does frustrate me,’ says Jackie Malton, former detective chief inspector. ‘It’s the default setting of criticism – let’s look for someone to blame.’   And yet, within the force, there has been a significant culture change over the last few decades. ‘It’s absolutely less sexist than when I was working in the Flying Squad in the late 80s and early 90s,’ Malton concedes. She recalls that her male colleagues would routinely present her with sex toys.

September 22nd 2012 Guardian

Comparative study into the under-representation of women in the … library.npia.police.uk/…/CRITCHETT-underrepresentation-of serving women officers in the Sussex Police Force

History of the Metropolitan police

Sussex Police Force

Historical Consultant  David Rowland

Women Police Officers 1970   DC Police   Devon and Cornwall Police


Uploaded on 1 Jul 2009

In 1970 women police officers were integrated into the police service and shared equal status with their male counterparts. Since then  WPCs have always been in the front line of duty and in 1984 WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy.


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