WOMEN IN SCARLET
By Jodi Ann Eskritt
By Jodi Ann Eskritt
The members of Troop 17 arrived for training at “Depot” Division in September 1974 with something no other recruits had ever had in tow – the Canadian press corps.
The first female recruits accepted by the RCMP, the 32 women were not aware of the full impact they would have. They were dogged throughout training by journalists eager for a “photo-op” and to document this pivotal moment in the history of one of the world’s most famous police forces.
Forty-years later some may have forgotten the hurly-burly of public attention but few can deny the change they wrought on a cherished Canadian icon.
Not that women hadn’t played a part in the storied history of the Mounties before 1974. At many an isolated and remote detachment, particularly in Canada’s northern regions, police wives earned the sobriquet “the second man.” We imagine today the lone Mountie bringing law and order to the barren north but this image was, in good part, made possible by the unpaid labour of his wife.
The behind-the-scenes reality was familiar to some of the new female recruits – sisters and daughters of police officers who were very aware of the rewards and sacrifices of police life. Few, however, could predict how this new generation of women would change that life.
The RCMP Heritage Centre and Historical Collections Unit are marking the 40th anniversary of women in the force with a special feature exhibition open to the public throughout the summer months. Through stories and artefacts, the exhibition explores the experiences of women in the RCMP from the historic national swearing-in ceremony of the first female members on Sept 16, 1974 to the continuing roles of women serving today.
The RCMP was under a microscope in the early 1970s, suffering under the weight of recent public criticism. The 1970 October Crisis and the response to the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) had cost it some of the public trust it had built up over almost a century of policing. The Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada did not spare it when recommending that women, already able to serve with municipal police forces across the country, be hired on a full, equal basis with male officers.
Peel’s principals reinforced the historic tradition that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” Perhaps in this difficult moment, opening the ranks to women – to a larger public – would help the RCMP become more inclusive.
Headquarters studied the question for the next four years but once the final decision was made, things happened quickly. As 292 women went to detachments across the country to apply, some staff had not yet been made aware of the new policy. There would be other bumps in the road as the RCMP wrestled with the question of including women in its ranks.
Depot had been given six months to prepare for the arrival of Troop 17. It designated a women’s barracks and even briefly considered putting up fencing around it, as staff were uncertain how male recruits might react to their presence.
New training procedures were examined and developed. Concerns were expressed about women having the physical strength to meet the demands. Drill staff worried about the troop marching with a “wiggle”.
It may have come as something of a relief when Troop 17 proved not only able to march nicely, but adapted this new skill more quickly than bulky male counterparts. Their pumps didn’t create the same distinctive stomping effect of the men’s Strathcona’s boots, but Troop 17 was demonstrating a clear ability to adapt to the demands of training.
Footwear wasn’t the only consideration. Matters of uniform were discussed and the result of these considerations was possibly one of the most unusual kit issues ever made. The key advisor was the executive director of Fashion Canada. Fashion and femininity appear to have received as much, if not more, weight as serviceability in the field.
This was most evident than in the female recruit’s issue black purse. The initial plan for the women’s uniform excluded the Sam Browne belt, replacing it with a service dress and a review order pattern handbag. Compartments were designed inside the dress pattern for a firearm, ammunition and handcuffs.
To mediate the potential risk that resulted, the handbag was to be secured by a strap through the member’s uniform shoulder strap. Major Toole, the Advisor Women Personnel, questioned the rationale of the purse and the decision not to issue belts. Female personnel with the Canadian Forces Military Police were already wearing them. Why couldn’t a similar issue be made to female Mounties?
A temporary Sam Browne belt was issued, subject to testing, and by the time of the 1975 graduation the decision to accept it had been made. Even with the Sam Browne, the female member’s uniform remained distinctive from its male counterpart.
In 1990, 16 years after women were first admitted, the distinctive female uniform was dropped. From that time forward, women would wear the same uniform as male colleagues. Today the RCMP has only two distinctly “female” uniforms: the ceremonial dress pattern with its long skirt, and the maternity dress.
Questions of distinctive female dress aside, the accomplishments of early RCMP women cannot be denied. They confronted the force’s masculine image head on and made significant strides in advancing equality for women. Most of all, they earned the public’s respect as figures of civil authority.
Jodi Ann Eskritt is the curator of the RCMP Historical Collections Unit.