Women in policing: from ‘lady truncheons’ to Met Commissioner

Women police officers have come a long way from guarding young women’s morals and caring for children. But are they still facing a greater burden than male officers? On International Women’s Day, Carina O’Reilly of Anglia Ruskin University examines how far we’ve come.

Edith Smith was the first woman to be sworn in as a police constable with official powers of arrest in Grantham in December 1915 (Jackson, 2014).

There were female volunteers in the police already: Margaret Damer Dawson and Nina Boyle had founded the Women Police Volunteers the previous year, partly in order to protect decent women from falling into prostitution (or from being overwhelmed by the attention of thousands of young men mobilised for the First World War).

Smith policed the moral behaviour of young women and ensured that those engaging in ‘unseemly conduct’ were banned from Grantham’s theatres and cinemas. 

However, Smith, a widow and former midwife, was the first woman to have the same police powers as men. 

Pictures show a serious looking woman wearing a uniform jacket, broad-brimmed hat and a long skirt.

Her appointment was controversial; the Home Office believed that women were not ‘proper persons’ (Jackson, 2014) to undertake police duties, while at the other extreme, some feminists believed that the role of female officers was to ensure women were treated with sufficient sensitivity.

 Smith, on the other hand, policed the moral behaviour of young women and ensured that those engaging in ‘unseemly conduct’ were banned from Grantham’s theatres and cinemas. 

This morning, on the radio news, two senior police officers were going head to head with the prime minister over police numbers and knife crime. All three were women: Sara Thornton, Cressida Dick and Theresa May. We’ve come a long way. But are we yet where we need to be?

Separate and distinct

Until the 1970s, women in policing were seen as separate and distinct from policemen with different purposes and roles.

Women undertook some patrol duties and worked in office roles, but were largely organised as a separate branch within their constabularies (GMP, n.d).

Women police officers in Greater Manchester Police began wearing a hostess-style uniform in 1974 – including a little hat, a skirt, a tunic without pockets, and an official police handbag

Much of the work expected of women officers was heavily gendered; dealing primarily with women and children, escorting female and underage prisoners, and those in hospital (OU, 2009).

By the mid-1970s, increasing pressure to equalise the position of women led to the disbanding of many of these separate departments – the Women’s Department of the Metropolitan Police was disbanded in 1973, for example (MPS, 2018).

The Equal Pay Act of 1974 brought in further changes, as did the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, which broke up all the separate Women’s Departments and opened up all operational roles to women for the first time. 

Nevertheless, the disparity between the roles and assumptions of men and women police officer remained.

Women police officers in Greater Manchester Police began wearing a hostess-style uniform in 1974 – including a little hat, a skirt, a tunic without pockets, and an official police handbag (GMP, n.d.).

In the 1980s, recruits in London were issued with special ‘lady truncheons’ small enough to fit into a handbag (MPS, 2018). Men and women police officers in Manchester were not issued identical levels of protective kit until the 1990s (GMP, n.d.). 

Cars, guns and horses

Nor did formal equality in access to operational roles mean that women had equal chance of taking on a variety of roles.

As late as 2001, Westmarland found that women were assumed to have specialist capabilities around the care of children or of dealing with the results of sexual and physical assault, as opposed the culturally more highly regarded work that might involve ‘cars, guns and horses’ (Westmarland 2001). 

The number of women in the police service, and the representation of women in senior roles in policing, have both risen significantly.

The overall proportion of female officers in the police service has risen year on year over the last decade to 29.8% by March 2018. This is broadly spread across service ranks; the percentage of chief officers for example is 27.1% while 31.6% of constables are women, suggesting that the number of women coming through will also grow.

Superficially, the situation of women in the police has changed beyond recognition. My own research into neighbourhood policing showed that gender was barely mentioned as an issue with regard to the representativeness of police officers (though certain types of crimes were seen as being of more concern to women than to men).

However, this may be because neighbourhood policing is a type of policing activity which rarely features what Reiner (2010) described as the macho aspects of police culture – Westmarland’s cars, guns and horses. 

Changes to demand

The changes to numbers at a senior level may also have something to do with changes to the nature of perceived demand in policing. Increasingly the priority at force level is to focus on vulnerability and hidden harms – crimes that happen behind closed doors.

This agenda strongly features issues such as domestic violence and child sexual exploitation that might once have been marginalised as issues largely of interest to – and the responsibility of – women.

Other scholars such as Loftus (2010) have noted other recent developments challenging traditional cop culture, such as procedural justice and the developing professionalisation agenda.

By contrast, my students training to be Specials are lit up by the thought (or experience) of bruising physical encounters during their shifts.

So macho culture hasn’t vanished from policing by any means. However, it is no longer particularly useful in many areas of policing. Instead, it is focused in certain frontline areas: response; public order; those cars, guns and horses again.

It’s not, perhaps, that policing culture is relentlessly macho, so much as it contains many different cultures, some of which still reify the ability to physically overcome another person, and within which women are regarded as potentially too bodily weak to really matter. 

Those two brilliant women police officers mentioned above have written blogs themselves to celebrate International Women’s Day. Commissioner Cressida Dick’s is here. It celebrates 100 years of women in policing in the Metropolitan Police, crowned by the appointment of Commissioner Dick herself in 2017. Sara Thornton’s blog in 2016underlines how vital diversity is to the legitimacy and effectiveness of the police, and suggests we might have finally reached a tipping point. 

We have undoubtedly come a long way; of my first year policing students, more than half are women. But both sex and gender based discrimination remains, and they may face a career where they are much more likely (as in academia) to take on emotionally taxing roles, to be given the labour of dealing with others’ crises, and to have to do that while also carrying the bulk of the burden of domestic work and emotional labour at home. 

We may no longer require women police officers to police other women’s morals. But women’s inequitable experiences of policing might not just reflect pockets of machismo police culture, but the endemic inequitable expectations of society at large. On this International Women’s Day, we need to turn our focus not just on the practices of policing, but towards our expectations of women as a whole. 


Dick, C. 2019. Being the next first. Available at https://www.met.police.uk/police-forces/metropolitan-police/areas/campaigns/2018/celebrating-100-years-of-women-policing-in-london/100-years-strong/cressida-dick2/[accessed 06 Mar 2019]

Greater Manchester Police, n.d., History of Women in Policing. Available at https://www.gmpmuseum.co.uk/collection-item/history-of-women-in-policing/[accessed 06 Mar 2019]

Jackson, L. A., 2014. The First World War and the first female police officer. Available athttps://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/06/17/the-first-world-war-and-the-first-female-police-officer/[accessed 06 Mar 2019]

Loftus, B., 2010. Police occupational culture: classic themes, altered times. Policing and society20(1), pp.1-20.

Metropolitan Police Service, 2018. Celebrating 100 years of female officers in the Met. Available at http://news.met.police.uk/news/celebrating-100-years-of-female-officers-in-the-met-333878[accessed 06 Mar 2019]

Open University, 2009. The Women Police. Available at http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/history-from-police-archives/Met6Kt/WomenPolice/wpFwp.html[accessed 06 Mar 2019]

Reiner, R., 2010. The politics of the police. Oxford University Press.

Thornton, S. 2016. Police Chiefs Blogs: International Women’s Day March 2016.Available at https://news.npcc.police.uk/releases/police-chiefs-blogs-international-womens-day-march-2016[accessed 06 Mar 2019]

Westmarland, L., 2002. Gender and policing. Willan.

Welcome to the PIER blog

This is the holding page for PIER’s new blog. It will feature updates on research by academics and serving officers linked to Anglia Ruskin’s Policing Institute for the Eastern Region, as well as commentary on major issues affecting policing and criminal justice. 

Want to write for us? Contact me, Carina O’Reilly, through the contact form on the left. 

“I have opinions of my own – strong opinions – but I don’t always agree with them.”
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