During the early 1910s, the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing. Women’s rights groups were firmly established and boasted vast memberships. One such organization was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a group founded on the tenets of evangelical protestant beliefs. While the WCTU is best known today as the driving force behind prohibition, they were also advocates for the protection of women and children. The WCTU were concerned with the high rate of domestic violence in Canadian society and sought to reduce it through political action. Along with temperance, the WCTU also pushed for the representation of women in the police, believing their maternal nature would lead to greater protection for women and children who were victims of violence.
In 1912, because of pressure from the WCTU and other women’s groups, the Vancouver Police hired their first female constables, Lurancy Harris and Minnie Miller. Not only was this a first for Vancouver, but Constables Harris and Miller were the first female officers hired in all of Canada. The two worked under the newly formed ‘Women’s Protective Division’ and their duties related exclusively to the handling of female and juvenile criminals. Officially, the women were referred to as ‘matrons’ and were stationed on duty in the city jail. They also patrolled pool and dance halls, keeping the city’s youth out of trouble.
At the time, the concept of female officers was radically progressive, and the women of the VPD were not treated equally to their male counterparts. They didn’t make as much money, they weren’t given uniforms, they didn’t receive training and they weren’t permitted to carry a firearm. Female constables had to supply their own coats and skirts, and carried their equipment not on belts, but in their purses.
Over the next two decades, the number of female constables in the VPD slowly increased. By 1943, the ‘Women’s Division’ had expanded to eleven officers under the command of Inspector Nancy Hewitt. Inspector Hewitt was instrumental in bringing about changes to the department, changes that helped shrink the inequality gap between men and women. Female constables were issued official police uniforms in 1947, and in 1952, they became eligible for in-service training. But one of the greatest leaps forward came in 1956 when female officers were granted equal pay to their male colleagues.
But the fight for equality was far from over. There were serious institutional issues within the department that still marginalized women. For example, female officers were referred to as ‘police women,’ a term distinct from ‘police constable.’ While it seems purely semantic, this distinction meant that female officers were left out of the running for promotions within the VPD’s general ranks. On top of this, their duties had changed little since 1912—women were still relegated to the jail and their patrols were limited to policing juveniles and women. Female officers were still not allowed firearms and were finding themselves in increasingly more dangerous circumstances.
In 1969, Inspector Hewitt passed away. Her role as Inspector of the Women’s Division was not replaced. Shortly after, the department saw two more women retire; their positions were filled by men. One year later, five officers were transferred out of the Women’s Division and sent to dispatch, freeing up five men for street patrol. It happened that quickly; in just two years, women were taken off patrol and sent to work in the jail or behind a desk somewhere.
The VPD seemed to be going back on progress, but society was doing just the opposite. More than ever, women were fighting for equal opportunity and the public’s views were shifting. With the help of advocates like Simma Holt, people began to take notice. They began to question why there were no women patrolling the streets of Vancouver. They began to wonder why some officers were denied the right to carry a firearm because of their gender.
Because of pressure from inside and outside the department, the VPD had to make significant changes. In 1973, women on duty were finally allowed to carry firearms and female officers had their responsibilities expanded to include the same patrol duties as their male coworkers. This meant that, for the first time in Vancouver, men and women would patrol the same streets, respond to the same calls and arrest the same perpetrators. Reports from these early female patrols came back positive; as it turned out, the female constables could handle themselves just as well as the men. In 1975, the term ‘police women’ was officially replaced with the non-gendered ‘police constables.’
These changes ushered in a new era for the department. Female officers began to explore beyond patrol, seeking out work in other sections of the department. Vancouver got its first female detective, Marylyn Sims, in 1975; in 1978, Sergeant Geramy Field became the canine unit’s first female dog-handler; and in 1988, Linda Malcolm was the first to join the Motorcycle Drill Team. These women, and those who came before them, helped pave the way for the next generations of female officers.
Since the 1970s, the number of female officers has increased year after year. As of 2018, women make up 26% of sworn officers in the VPD.
Written by Matteo Miceli