From footprints on the moon to female Mounties on patrol: Catalysts for change
Forty-five years ago, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police swore in the first female Mounties rocking conventional understanding of the qualities required to be an officer
By Jane Hall
In 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. The first steps on the moon were indeed a giant leap forward for humanity. The bounds of earth’s gravity that had confined past generations were broken, and the sky was no longer the limit. Perhaps the only limits mankind had were self-imposed ways of thinking that accepted existing wisdom as absolute truths.
One might argue that the first step was largely symbolic, eclipsing the rapid expansion of science that preceded the Apollo 11 mission, and later overshadowing the many space programs it spawned globally. Perhaps, but symbols are important, and no one should ever diminish the vision and courage of those early astronauts and aerospace engineers to set a seemingly impossible goal and reach it. Nor should anyone ever understate the power of symbolism as a catalyst for change.
Female Mounties rocked policing conventions
2019 also marks the 45th anniversary of the swearing-in of the first female Mounties of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). At the time, this was a controversial, high-profile move that rocked conventional understanding of the qualities required to be a police officer and fundamentally changed the policing profession.
The RCMP, one of the most recognized police forces in the world, is held in such high esteem that it is considered a symbol of Canada. When the RCMP opened its ranks to women, the world was watching. Time magazine featured a graduating female troop on its famous cover. This generated positive press for an organization that was simply acting on a government mandate to open its ranks to women. Canadian feminist activists in the 1960s deserve credit for building on a 50-year-old foundation started by a previous generation.
Inequality for the first women in policing
In 1912, Vancouver became the first city in Canada to bend to pressure from women’s activist groups and hire three female police officers to deal with juveniles in conflict with the law, women as victims of violence and members of the sex trade. These female officers had no uniforms or guns and their authority was limited to children and women.
By the early 1970s, police departments in Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago and Michigan, to name a few, were experimenting with limited numbers of females on patrol. However, rarely, if ever, were these early pioneers afforded the same powers, status, training, uniform and equipment as men. These pioneering police officers were contained by glass ceilings and organizational barriers that denied them the ability to move both laterally and vertically through the organization.
Recruiting challenges for the RCMP
There was no policing model apparent for the RCMP to emulate when it was directed to recruit, train and employ women with no career restrictions based on gender.
The RCMP had a problem. Unlike Canadian men, women were not waiting in a large applicant pool hoping to be recruited into the RCMP ranks. The RCMP needed women with the right stuff to join, but most women of the Baby Boom generation had never considered policing as an option.
The task of recruiting women caused the RCMP to alter its recruiting standards of the day in anticipation that female recruits would be older, shorter and possibly married. The height and marriage restrictions were the first to change.
This was a paradigm cultural shift in the RCMP’s approach to recruitment. Historically the RCMP expected recruits to adapt to the RCMP, not the other way around. The acceptance of women became a catalyst for modernization. The introduction of women as Mounties allowed the RCMP to draw upon a more diverse field of male and female applicants that was more reflective of Canadian society.
More female officers, less fighting
Historically, fighting was part of the job of male police officers. It seemed to be a no-lose scenario for offenders. It was macho to fight a Mountie, win or lose. Crown Councils (district attorneys in the US) did not like to clog up the court system with officer assault or resisting arrest charges, preferring to leave that to “street justice.” The introduction of female police officers turned that situation on its head. It was not considered macho to fight with a woman, especially if a man lost a fight to a woman. Assaulting a police officer was no longer acceptable.
The success of women in policing led to a reassessment of what qualities were best suited to the policing profession. Height requirements were replaced by fitness tests grounded in the physical demands of police work. Emotional intelligence, communication skills and critical thinking began to be valued as desirable policing skills.
Over the past 45 years, the strength and success of the lighter, kinder tone brought by women to policing have been incorporated into the traditionally male-dominated culture of policing. Rarely have minority groups had so substantial an impact on dominant cultures. The credit for these achievements belongs to the female activists of the 1960s and those whose work they built on, who cracked open doors younger women like me could step through.
Back in the U.S. Space Program’s infancy, men and women rushed to be the first astronauts. Dr. Randolph Lovelace was tasked with evaluating female pilots for suitability as astronauts. Many like Geraldyn Cobb met or exceeded the physical and psychological thresholds set by NASA, but suddenly, partway through the training, the rules changed. Astronaut qualifications were expanded to require candidates to have experience as fighter pilots. At the time, women were not eligible in the US or other countries, to be combat pilots.
Geraldyn Cobb, who had passed all the same pre-flight tests as her seven male peers for the Mercury 13, NASA’s inaugural human spaceflight program, could not overcome that barrier. In 1962, Ms. Cobb crossed over from being a potential astronaut pioneer to activist when she testified before Congress and denounced the new requirement.
I have no doubt women will leave footprints on the moon. Sadly Ms. Cobb did not live long enough to see it. I hope the first women pause to pay tribute to Geraldyn Cobb when they do.
NEXT: Police history: 5 trailblazing women in law enforcement
About the author
Jane Hall is president of Society of Police Futurists International. She is the author of The Red Wall: a Woman in the RCMP, and chair of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Veteran Women’s Council and of the Women in Leadership Team for the Public Safety Leadership Development Consortium, and is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Operation Honour. She lectures on police culture and organizational change for the Law Enforcement Institute of Texas (LEMIT) program and is considered a subject matter expert on police culture. After graduating from Queens University with a B.A. and B.Ed. in 1977 she joined the RCMP and served 21 years.