For people whose experience is mainly confined to the present day, it is difficult to appreciate just how all pervasive and endemic sexism was in society and its institutions only a relatively short time ago. Organisations and the men who controlled them routinely behaved towards women in a manner that would be considered totally outrageous today. This certainly applied in the UK police force of the 1980s, when a Policewoman’s Lot was not always a happy one.
Alison Cox joined the Cambridgeshire Police Force in 1981 at the age of nineteen, at her second attempt. Her first application had been rejected the previous year on the grounds that she was still too immature to be accepted. She had not done well at the interview on that occasion, and the senior officer in charge had been quite dismissive and even contemptuous towards her. Despite this somewhat unpleasant experience, Alison had set her heart on a police career and prepared herself as well as she could prior to her second, successful application. She was delighted to be accepted and looked forward to her initial 12 week residential training course.
Alison had lived with her parents in a quiet Cambridgeshire village prior to joining the police. She would be leaving home for the first time. After leaving school at 16, she had worked locally as a receptionist at a veterinary practice, and then at a children’s nursery. She liked animals and children, but had experienced sexual harassment at the vets. The middle aged vet had tried to grope her and touch her up on more than one occasion. Other girls who had worked there had experienced similar problems, and Alison found his behaviour sufficiently unpleasant for her to leave and work at the nursery instead.
Alison was a bright and bubbly girl who enjoyed meeting people, and this was probably what attracted her to a police career. She was quite tall at 5 ft. 8, with a good figure, and striking in appearance, with long fair hair, bright blue eyes, fresh face and fleshy lips. She was possibly slightly overweight, but this was offset by a large natural 36D bust, which attracted a lot of male attention.
Alison enjoyed her residential training course, though she sometimes resented the way she and her fellow WPCs were treated by the male instructors and other male recruits, who only grudgingly accepted their presence when they were not arguing that women should not be allowed to join the police force at all. They were definitely second class citizens or a lower form of life. WPCs were routinely addressed as “Ethel” or “Doris”, whatever their actual name was, or as “Woopsies,” a corruption of WPC. Alison was mystified when some male officers called her a “plonk” until another WPC explained to her that this stood for “person of little or no knowledge,” which she thought was the worst of the four.
Alison was proud of her smart uniform, which was very much more gender specific than is the case today. In particular, WPCs wore skirts rather than trousers. Policewomen were sometimes (very rarely) allowed to wear trousers on night duty, at the discretion of their Superintendent. A WPC at Alison’s first station in the city of Cambridge made a written request to be allowed to do so, but this was refused. The standard issue skirt was just on or above knee length, without pleats, and was quite tight fitting. It tended to ride up revealingly even when getting in and out of cars, let alone climbing over a fence.
The rest of the uniform was made up of a white blouse and clip on black tie, with a quite tight fitting single breasted tunic which tended to emphasise the bust. A soft black and white cap with a chequered band was worn, with a black leather handbag and gloves, black lace up shoes and black stockings or tights. WPCs were issued with a short wooden truncheon about half the size of a male officer’s truncheon to fit inside the regulation handbag. This attracted the inevitable ribald comments about vibrators and where to insert the batteries.
Alison was hoping that this routine sexism would be scaled down a little when she was first posted to Cambridge, under the pressure of day to day police work. She was to be disappointed in this. In fact, in this regard the situation was far worse.
She joined one of four patrol sections working a three shift system, made up of an inspector, a patrol sergeant, a station sergeant, and 12 PCs including herself and the only other WPC, Gail Holmes, who had just completed her two year probationary period. Inspector Mick Johnson was a very pleasant, easy going and approachable 60 year old who was approaching retirement and was generally known as “Grandad.” The patrol sergeant was David Cowan and was much younger, about 30. The station sergeant was about 50, and was called James Rose. He had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and often absented himself from the station without warning to pay a visit to one of a number of middle aged girlfriends around the town. PS Rose showed Alison round the station on her first day, when he spent most of the time ogling her chest and making suggestive comments, which she did her best to ignore.
Alison attracted a lot of attention from the male PCs as the new Doris/ Woopsie/ Plonk. Initially she spent most of her time making the tea and doing the washing up, and helping out in the station office. Then she began to go out on mobile patrol with Don Marsh, an experienced tutor PC, who had been stationed at Cambridge for six years. He was quite friendly with a good sense of humour.
Three weeks after her arrival at Cambridge, the section was starting a night shift when PS Jim Rose said with grin that if it was quiet one night that week they would get her induction out of the way. Don Marsh and a couple of other male PCs who were present began smirking broadly. Alison didn’t know what he was talking about and asked the only other WPC, Gail Holmes. “Oh, it’s their initiation ceremony,” she said in a matter of fact way. “They stamp you on the bum with the police station rubber stamp. It’s a bit pathetic, but it doesn’t hurt. It happens to all the WPCs. It happened to me when I first got here. There’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to let them get on with it.”
Alison didn’t believe it at first, but this was confirmed by another WPC on the station. It just seemed to be normal and accepted. She felt a growing sense of apprehension as the week of night shifts progressed. It was quite busy that week and Alison thought it might have been overlooked or forgotten about with everything that had been going on. Then the final night of the shift came, a Monday night/ Tuesday morning, and it had been very quiet, something she had been dreading. Inspector Johnson was not on duty that night. Neither was PS Dave Cowan, who had to attend Court that day. There was just PS Rose and the other PCs.
PS Jim Rose and eight other male PCs gathered round Alison in the kitchen at 2 o’clock that morning after the early morning refreshment break, as she was doing the washing up. “Time for your induction now, Alison,” he said, beaming. “We’re all inked up and ready to go, Sarge,” said Don Marsh. “It’s all on the snooker table.”
To be continued.