Louise A. Jackson teaches social history at the University of Edinburgh and is a member of WHS steering committee. She has carried out extensive archival research on the histories of female police officers in the UK, gender and the criminal justice system, and on child abuse and the law.
2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the appointment of the first attested woman police officer in the UK: Edith Smith, who was sworn in with full powers of arrest in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Recent media and TV coverage has done much to highlight her role and significance (including the BBC4 documentary A Fair Cop, broadcast on 15 March 2015). But what of women’s roles in other parts of the UK, including Scotland? Who was the ‘first’ female police officer in Scotland? Much depends on the criteria used to identify female ‘firsts’ in policing. When were women first sworn in? When were they first paid? What was their job title and their role? When did they wear uniforms? When did they gain full powers of arrest? When did they perform the same roles as men? These questions are clearly shaped by our assumptions about what it means to be a police officer. The quest for female ‘firsts’ demonstrates that women’s venture into policing was a gradual process through which equality was slowly achieved over many decades.
Glasgow Museums holds a photograph of ‘Big Rachel’ Hamilton, previously a forewoman navvy, who was sworn in as a Special Constable during the Partick Riots of 1875.
This clearly pre-dates Edith Smith’s work, although the role of Special Constable was a voluntary or auxiliary one and, until comparatively recently in Scotland, was limited to periods of emergency only. It was common, too, by the late nineteenth century for the wives of policemen, in county areas and small towns, to look after female prisoners and to clean and maintain police station for free, their roles subsumed with that of their husband. In the cities, women were employed as turnkeys and matrons to look after female prisoners in police custody.
In Scotland, as elsewhere in the British Isles, there was an active ‘voluntary patrol’ movement organised by the National Council of Women Workers during the First World War. Patrol groups were set up in Dundee, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hawick, Kirkcaldy, and Leith. Their duties were seen as similar to social work and ‘rescue’ work: the prevention of prostitution, and helping and advising young women and children whom they encountered when they patrolled streets and public places. Women also carried out a significant policing role at HM Gretna Munitions Factory in the years 1916-18, searching women workers as they entered and left the site and making sure that they behaved in an orderly way.
It was in September 1915, however, that Emily Miller was appointed as the first female investigation officer (or ‘lady assistant’) on the payroll of Glasgow City Police. Crucially, she was attached to the Criminal Investigation Office (CID) with a very specific brief: to take statements from women and children in cases of sexual assault and abuse, an area in which she developed highly specialist skills (she later described her role in the evidence she gave to the 1925 Interdepartmental Committee on Sexual Offences against Children in Scotland). It was not until 1919 that she was employed as ‘policewoman’ rather than ‘lady assistant’ (along with Georgina W. McLeod) and she finally gained powers of arrest in 1924.
In Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen in 1918 local authorities agreed that women should be admitted to their local police forces in small numbers because they had performed a very valuable role during the war. Indeed, Scotland’s first paid, uniformed, policewoman was Jean Thomson (nee Wright), who was appointed in Dundee in 1918 and served for three years until 1921.
More broadly, though, why does this matter and what does the history of women in Scottish policing tell us about social change? The case of women in policing demonstrates the importance of wartime as a catalyst for changing women’s roles, and acts as barometer for ideas about gender equality in Britain.
The story of women’s progress in policing is crucial to our understanding of the relationship between feminism, women and the state. Edith Smith’s appointment in Grantham was criticised by the Home Office who claimed that women, by virtue of their sex were not ‘proper persons’ (this was the same reason that was given to explain why women could not vote). It was this legal opposition that deterred other towns and cities from following Grantham’s example until the passing of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act in 1919. The same legislation that opened the doors to the first Women MPS also made way for the first women police, women jurors and women lawyers and thus their incorporation into the criminal justice system as representatives of the state and of law and order. In terms of liberal rights, this was as significant as the winning of the vote. Yet it is noteworthy, too, that the arguments that were made by the supporters of the campaign for women police in Scotland (as elsewhere) related to gender difference: women were to undertake work that was gender-specific that related to female and child ‘victims’. From a feminist perspective, this mattered, because it was seen as deeply inappropriate, given that most assaults reported to the police involved male perpetrators, that male officers should be involved in interviewing. It was an argument that was a persuasive one amongst a far wider constituency: women’s role in policing was complementary and they were not there to replace men.
From the perspective of 2015, these arguments have an additional relevance. Given concerns about the lack of an appropriate state response to child sexual abuse cases in recent decades, it is noteworthy that there was a high level of concern and public awareness in the 1920s (culminating in the 1925 Inter-department Committee). In 1925 the Scottish Office issued an official ‘Circular’ (instruction), urging chief constables to appoint women to take precognitions (statements) from women and children. There was awareness, too, that changes were needed in police methods to encourage higher levels of reporting and to enable higher levels of conviction in the courts.
The number of policewomen in Scotland remained very small across the first half of the twentieth century. By 1928 there were 16 policewomen in Scotland: 11 in Glasgow, 2 in Edinburgh, 2 in Ayr and one in Aberdeen. By 1939 Glasgow’s Policewomen’s Department had expanded to 15 but their role was still defined as a CID role relating to statement taking and the investigation of offences against women and children. Nevertheless they had carried out important work. In 1930, Glasgow businessman Samuel Moorov was convicted of a series of indecent assaults on women, whom he had employed as assistants in his drapery firm. Glasgow policewomen were involved in the investigation of the case, which led to the ruling that single witnesses in individual crimes could be used as mutual corroboration if there was sufficient inter-relationship in time, place and circumstances between incidents. This created an important precedent in terms of Scottish law.
During the Second World War women were recruited into policing as auxiliaries once again. In Glasgow 220 women were employed in this capacity, led by Dr Violet Roberton, magistrate and member of the police committee, as Commandant of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps.
Scotland was given its own female assistant to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabularies in 1961. This was Janet Gray, who had previously served in Glasgow City Police. An indication of the duties associated with women officers is given in Gray’s inspection report on Dundee’s two policewomen, whom she visited in 1961:
‘They deal with all cases of criminal assault, which are very prevalent, women shop-lifters and observation duty in all its aspects; also all girls who have appeared before a court, and with those whose behaviour has necessitated the parents appealing to the police for advice and help. I was impressed by the work these women are doing in an effort to combat delinquency’.
In Ayr Burgh, policewomen were responsible for checking the shelters on the seafront used as a ‘sleeping quarters’ by girls missing from home. In Inverness County, policewomen’s time was mainly occupied with duties at the ski slopes during ski season, and a high proportion of their cases related to child visitors.
There was a formal marriage bar in place across Scottish police forces until 1968 (although it was lifted in England and Wales in 1946). This meant that women were required to resign upon marriage and most of those who were recruited in the 1950s and 1960s served for only three years or four years. In 1970 the entire Scottish police service still employed only 382 women (less than four per cent of all officers). The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 finally enabled women to be recruited on the same terms and conditions as men. Women were finally incorporated into the same line management structures, undertaking similar work to their male colleagues, for the first time. Nevertheless challenges remained in relation to cultural attitudes, equal representation and the glass ceiling. Norma Graham became Scotland’s first Chief Constable (of Fife) in 2005; with the creation of Police Scotland in 2013 Rose Fitzpatrick became the most senior female officer as Deputy Chief Constable (with responsibility for local policing). In 2015 women constituted 29 per cent of Police Scotland, suggesting both significant progress and work still to be done in positioning policing as an attractive career for women.