Women in Uniform

An extract from Fair Cop by Christine Nixon

It was Monday, 23 October 1972 when I presented myself at 8 AM at the Redfern Police Academy, a collection of dull red dormitories and classrooms surrounded by a towering brick fence in the heart of Sydney's Surry Hills. Today, in a nice karmic twist, most of the space where we were knocked into shape as trainee constables has been taken over by Buddhist monks, although the latest generation of the police horses we shared the precinct with are still stabled there.

Entering the parade ground at the heart of the academy that first day, I waded into a sea of men, the other 70 young recruits of our intake, and the senior men whose job it would be to train us. This was deep-end immersion into a proud, unapologetic, testosterone fuelled culture. Indeed, the presence of one other woman in our intake exaggerated by double the female ratio of the day. The reality was closer to one woman to every 70 men, this was about to change. Exquisite, or cruel? Timing had placed me in the vanguard of a new era, and my female peers and I would encounter strong resistance to any change to the status quo every step of the way. Enduring that culture war with dignity, femininity and strength would prove the unending challenge of our careers, and without a sense of humour and an appreciation of the absurd - more gifts from Ross and Betty - I would without doubt have succumbed years ago. In celebratory moments in recent years, including the occasion when Victoria's Purana Task Force gathered to mark its success in investigating Melbourne's underworld killings, I have been known to grab the microphone and join the band to belt out a rendition of “It's Raining Men , Hallelujah”, I suspect the irony may be lost on many younger police.

Catching a glimpse of the one other female in the crowd at Redfern, I already felt a powerful need for some solidarity and made a beeline to introduce myself. “I heard that there's one other woman in this class. I guess that's you?.” Her name was Sue Thompson, and she would become a good friend. We were two of just six women to join New South Wales police force that year. My identity thereafter was Woman Police Constable 173, that is only the 173rd female, formally numbered, to join the New South Wales force since the first two women were recruited back in 1915. Those brave pioneers were admitted as 'special constables' only after almost 35 years of lobbying by first wave feminists to have women included in the force, and to gain recognition from police and other justice authorities of the needs of women and children at risk. Women were only officially included in the ranks of the New South Wales force, losing their special constable stages, a decade before I joined up.

Sue and I quickly got acquainted as we cast an appraising eye over the class of October 1972, the fashions and attitudes of the day ensuring that we were the motliest, hairiest looking crew you might imagine. You could hear the despair in the shouts of the drill sergeants trying to rouse us into formation. We were lined up and yelled at, one by one, the sergeants leaning in so close that the barked orders would be delivered in a spray across our faces. Over the next six weeks of basic training, they marched us up and they marched us down, harangued, jeered, bullied and cajoled us to our limits. But I coped, I was 19, and physically very fit. Each morning we would do exercise drills and were taken for a run in the park, as well as being taught some self-defence moves. Our classroom work involved learning by rote basics of the law and our role and responsibilities in enforcing it, not too much of a challenge intellectually, and not particularly instructive on some of the bigger issues we would wrestle with once we buttoned ourselves into uniform - temptation, corruption, police culture, community engagement, and coping with trauma and violence.