Women in Policing

Photo: Leeds City Policewomen on first parade in uniform 1945.

Exploring the role of some of the first female police officers to join the force and how attitudes towards women in policing have changed over time. Has society moved from segregation of women in policing to full integration or are there still issues to address in modern policing?

War Work

Photo: Leeds City Policewomen on first parade in uniform 1945.

During the First World War, the Women’s Police Service and the National Union of Women Workers were formed to aid the police. Both groups policed the behaviour of working-class women, patrolling parks, separating courting couples, and moving on “dangerous” women. They did not have the power of arrest. Following the end of the war, proposals to maintain women police were met with strong opposition from many politicians and police officers.

But between the wars women police continued to be recruited. Their duties included dealing with women and children, patrol work, solicitation and attendance at Juvenile Courts. They also undertook plain clothes observation duties.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps (WAPC), was formed to free up men for military duties, performing tasks that did not require full police powers, such as driving and clerical work. However, behaviour (that was seen as immoral) caused by the outbreak of war led to the WAPC widening their duties and becoming involved in everyday policing where they were given the power of arrest.

The WAPC was only expected to last until the end of the war, and although it was disbanded in 1946, many of its members went on to join the newly formed Women’s Police Department within the regular police force. 

The Yorkshire Post

May 20th, 1944

It was recommended that ‘due to the laxity in moral behaviour during the war, it was reasonable to believe that the presence of policewomen on patrol would act as a preventative and a deterrent in the general interest of law and order’.

Photograph of Winifred Lindsay Visiting to Prison and Police Museum 2005 Winifred Lindsay, first WAPC (Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps) member based at Ripon Police Station during the Second World War. It was her responsibility to sound the siren whenever the phone on her desk flashed red. She recalled that Inspector Derbyshire lived in the house adjacent to the station and his wife was responsible for feeding prisoners and cleaning cells. She often had young women coming in to report maltreatment by their husbands. It was stressful incidents like this that caused her to resign in 1945.

What are we coming to? Surely not women police! ...Paid women police forsooth. Why cannot our womenfolk leave men’s business alone and attend more closely to their own? The idea should be laughed out.

1970s and Beyond

Photo credit: Bradford Police Museum

The Equal Pay Act in 1970, and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, brought some equality between male and female police officers, including ending the division of duties between them. Female police officers were now called Women Police Constable (WPC), which reinforced their equal status with male colleagues.

The 1970s also saw the introduction of the blue ‘air hostess’ style uniform and women were not issued with truncheons despite equality!

The range of duties that women police officers undertook expanded far beyond the social activities they had done in the past. They became visible on the frontline of demonstrations, were recruited to CID and undertook investigative work, and became motorcyclists and firearm officers.

Women increasingly rose through the ranks to management positions, deploying police where required and planning policing of large-scale events.

Following the key pieces of legislation in the 1970s, significant strides in diversity were being made in all areas of society, and this had a marked impact on the Police and Justice system. In the 1990s women were taking senior roles in a range of organisations, for instance Stella Rimmington became the first female head of MI5.

The Liverpool Echo

November 9th, 1988

Sex-snub Policewomen win £1m The 310 women officers, past and present, of the RUC Reserve Force, took their case to an industrial tribunal in Belfast, after the RUC’s Chief Constable Sir John Hermon, had refused to renew their contracts, saying they could not carry out full policing duties as he would not allow them to carry, or be trained in, firearms.

There’s a great effort, to ensure fairness and equality across all candidates, whether it’s to do with sexual orientation, gender whatever it happens to be these days…but there’s still a subtext…we were interviewing for a new Deputy Chief Constable…one of them said to me afterwards...“I’ve got a question I would really like to ask”, and I said “what is it”, “Well I’d like to ask the candidate how they feel about working for a woman boss.


Photo credit: Gloucestershire Police Archive

Towards the end of the 19th century, growing concerns about the legal rights of women and children led to calls for their treatment within the criminal justice system to be fair and dignified. This led to the introduction of police matrons, from about 1883, in the Metropolitan Police Force. At first, they were often wives of station sergeants and their role was to look after and search female prisoners, and deal with them at police courts. At the time, women were often ill-served during legal proceedings. Following common practise, for example, a court might be cleared of female observers on the order of the judge, leaving victims of sexual assault to give their evidence in a court room full of men. Later matrons were officially appointed and were paid.

But some forces were unhappy about introducing this type of work for women, believing that coming into contact with criminals, drunks, bad language and violence would have a harmful effect on respectable women who took on that role. On the other hand, concern about the bad behaviour of some young women and girls, led feminists to argue for the introduction of women police to deal with them. In 1912 the Women’s Freedom League suggested that women should be appointed to various roles within the justice system, such as magistrates, jurors, and police officers.

At Liverpool a resolution had been adopted urging the appointment of women police to discharge “refined” duties. It is surely another insult to the Suffragettes to make a purely sex distinction in the matter of police duties.


Photo credit: Gloucestershire Police Archive

By 2015 the Metropolitan Police Force had 8000 women police officers, making up 27% of the workforce, and nationally that percentage had risen to 30%, with women police officers undertaking all roles in policing. A career in the police force is now a serious proposition for women.

The journey for women in policing roles had significantly changed over 100 or so years. But it wasn’t an easy path. The suffragette movement, two world wars and various pieces of legislation all had their part to play in the transition from 1883 to today.

Women police officers had strong women advocating for them in the early days, they showed their determination and ability in their valued contribution through two world wars and beyond, they continued to fight for equality with their male colleagues, and undertake the same roles today.

In 2015, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, (at an event celebrating 100 years of Women in Policing), acknowledged the women who had overcome “obstacles, difficulties and resistance, … triumphed over the odds, and won over their male colleagues, demonstrating their professionalism and bravery”.

However, despite all the advancements cases of sex discrimination within the Police Force are still brought to court. In 2022, the police watchdog discovered misogyny, discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment within the ranks of the Met Police.

Exeter & Plymouth Gazette

21 Dec 1927

Chief Constable of Salford

“he had been forced to the opinion that there were many things in connection with police service a woman could not do, ‘and so few that she might do’ and then with doubtful efficiency by comparison with a member of the opposite sex. ‘My own experience’ he added ‘leads me to believe that uniformed policewomen would be a complete failure’”

It’s vital that the stereotypes of policing in times past become a dim and distant memory. Policing requires many skills that can only be brought to the service by an inclusive and diverse workforce. We’re proud to have a high proportion of women in senior roles at North Yorkshire Police, but there is more to be done to encourage the next generation of women into policing and ensure that we are truly representative of the people we serve.

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