The Uniform Makes the Woman

Certain professions just seem to need a uniform of some sort. A doctor’s white coat or scrubs (or both); a postal worker’s blue tops and bottoms; a park ranger in green and/or brown; military personnel. And people in law enforcement, definitely, right? Police officers are actually the first people that come to mind when I think of jobs with uniforms. And yet uniforms were surprisingly controversial and considered absolutely unnecessary for early female officers.

Police uniforms ignited fierce controversy in the United States and became a convenient point of attack for those opposed to the creation of municipal law enforcement (also a surprisingly large bunch). Freedom of dress fell high on the list of cherished American values. For many Americans, uniforms smacked of British pretension and elitism. The only people who wore uniforms on American streets were soldiers and servants, both symbols of values that democratic Americans generally opposed: standing armies and wealthy elites.

Demonstrating in front of the home of the New York City chief of police in 1854, city officers claimed that uniforms “conflicted with their notions of independence and self-respect.” Others decried the great expense of the public’s money to outfit a local army. In Philadelphia, city councilmen denounced the uniforms as a “badge of servitude” after fifteen officers resigned in protest, refusing to wear even a hat. City officials argued that uniforms made police officers visible and accessible to the public. Perhaps more importantly, though, uniforms made officers easier for their supervisors to track.

Without a uniform, officers could easily take their badges off and blend in to a crowd. Police captains struggled to maintain control over their officers on patrol. How could they know whether an officer was actually working and what standards they were enforcing? Without telephones, two-way radios, and other communication technologies, uniforms became one imperfect way to keep track of patrolmen who devised ingenuous methods to thwart supervision. The Civil War helped to elevate the status of uniforms among the public and police, and after the war, the blue coat became fairly standard police attire.

Police officer demonstrates an arrest Source: Library of Congress

Police officer demonstrates an arrest
Source: Library of Congress

Discussions regarding uniforms for women dragged on and on. Women first entered policing in larger numbers (still small, though) in the early 20th century. Political leaders and many policewomen themselves as well saw no need for an official uniform, preferring instead that female officers pin their official badge to their clothes. Early policewomen engaged primarily in protective work, safeguarding the morals of women and children. Some departments had ceremonial uniforms for policewomen. In Los Angeles in the 1920s, policewomen wore white dresses similar to that of a nurse.

New York City police officer Mary Hamilton believed the lack of uniform gave women an advantage because it allowed them to “mingle with the crowd without arousing suspicion and thereby [women could] detect conditions that would never exist while a bluecoat were in sight.” Policewomen were supposed to intercede in families and on streets without bringing a lot of attention to themselves or the suspect. Many female officers believed the experience of being arrested was humiliating enough without having to call more attention to it with a uniform.

Women went decades into the 20th century without an official uniform. And sometimes, when uniforms were created, the chosen styles clashed with the job – mini skirts and high heels, despite what we see on TV, are probably not the best crime fighting style.



2 thoughts on “The Uniform Makes the Woman

    • Thanks, Gail. I thought it was such a strange thing that people got so fired up about when I first read about it.

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