On February 22nd, 2017, the Metropolitan Police appointed Cressida Dick as its first female Commissioner, following the retirement of Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe last year. Over the last 100 years, enormous progress has been made for equal employment opportunities for women and, in light of Ms. Dick’s appointment, it seems like the right time to look at the history of women in the British police forces.
In 1829, the Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act to parliament. This act established Britain’s first modern police force – similar forces eventually replaced all the old, disorganised systems of watchmen and parish officers nationwide.
In 1914 the Women’s Police Force was founded by Margaret Damer Dawson and Nina Boyle. Unlike the official men’s Police Force, this force was staffed by female volunteers. The trained volunteers patrolled London alongside male Police Officers – who had the power of arrest – and sought to prevent crime, particularly prostitution. This organisation proved the capability of women and in 1915 Edith Smith became the first female police officer with full powers of arrest.
The role of women in the police took a step into the dark when, in 1919, the Met established ‘Police Women Patrols’. Three patrols were created – one for each district of London – led by sergeants Grace Russell, Lilian Wyles and Patty Alliot. Superintendent Sofia Stanley oversaw these patrols, reflecting the enormous societal shift which had occurred in Britain due to the First World War. Many early women police officers were, unsurprisingly, frequent victims of sexist remarks and bullying – in 1922 the Home Secretary even tried to have women police abolished. Fortunately, the conditions for women in the police improved over the next decade, as the Royal Commissions on Police Powers and Procedure of 1929 and 1931 introduced recommendations on the functions of women in police forces.
Many regard WW2 as having caused another immeasurable social shift. Like in WW1, the Second World War allowed women to prove their equal ability to men by fulfilling roles which had been off limits to them prior. In August 1939, the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps was instituted. The volunteer members of this force carried out a range of police duties such as maintaining motor vehicles and secretarial work. Over the course of the war, many became constables.
Over the next 2 decades, the role of women in the police became increasingly similar to that of male officers. Nevertheless, women still had separate patrols, ranks, departments and facilities. Through the 1970s, women were fully integrated into the police force, eventually working alongside men. This was the result of the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.
As always, society has continued to change in the last 40 years. The prominence of gender roles has been ever-dwindling, as we now see women making up over 1/4 of Britain’s police and the recent appointment of Cressida Dick in stark contrast to the remarks of one male police officer in 1916:
When asked whether women would ever be police constables, he burst out laughing, replying: ‘No, not even if the war lasts 50 years’.
Interested in first wave feminism? On February 19th, 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing nation to give women the vote.