Fifteen Eighty Four

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Gender and Policing in Early Modern England

Jonah Miller

In March 2023, Baroness Casey’s review of the Metropolitan Police found the organisation to be, among other things, ‘institutionally sexist and misogynistic.’ A year earlier, a report on officers based at Charing Cross police station described ‘a culture of “toxic masculinity”, sexual harassment and misogyny.’ In the wake of the 2021 murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, these findings have prompted widespread discussion of the relationship between gender and policing. On the one hand there are internal problems of personnel: a large majority of police officers are men, and female officers regularly describe discriminatory treatment by male colleagues. On the other, there is the external problem of relations between police and public: forces across the country have been charged with failing to adequately respond to violence against women and girls, and in some cases perpetrating that violence themselves.

These problems are not new. In fact, in certain respects, they are almost four centuries old. My new book, Gender and Policing in Early Modern England, traces the history of highly masculinised and misogynistic policing back to the seventeenth century. This was when a transition began to take place from an older form of gendered state power towards the kind we are familiar with today.

Until the seventeenth century, officers of law enforcement were almost always middle-aged heads of household. Typically, a married man of middling social status would hold office as constable of his parish for a year before passing on his duties to a neighbour. In this way, a large proportion of the householding population took part in local government and law enforcement. When women headed their own households – as singlewomen or widows – they too could serve as constables, and even those women who were nominally subordinate to their husbands often helped out with official business: applying for warrants, dispensing poor relief, and helping to track down suspects. Officeholding was closely linked to householding, so policing was a family business run by patriarchs and matriarchs.

This system rested on the idea that only certain people – middle-aged heads of prosperous households – possessed the qualities needed to wield power responsibly. From the early seventeenth century, however, judges began to argue that certain offices, especially those involved in law enforcement, didn’t require those qualities. Constables, they suggested, merely had to follow orders from their superiors; they didn’t have to exercise judgement or discretion, only do as they were told, so anybody could do the job. They were servile instruments of an impersonal authority. Their own personal characteristics were irrelevant.

On these terms, it became possible for non-householders to get involved in law enforcement. From the late seventeenth century, increasing numbers of constables and night watchmen, especially in London, were unmarried men, generally poorer than the heads of household they replaced. In the all-male space of the parish watch house (a precursor of the police station), they developed a fraternal cameraderie, centred on alcohol, bravado, misogyny, and violence.

Under these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that London’s policing was extremely gendered. Wherever the law gave officers license to arrest people on the basis of suspicion, they disproportionately targeted women. Poor women, especially those who ran errands or worked on the streets, were especially vulnerable to arrest as suspected vagrants, nightwalkers, or thieves. Discrimination did not end there. Once they were arrested, these women were treated differently to male suspects in one crucial respect: searches. Officers searched female suspects far more intrusively than they searched men. Some of these searches, to a modern eye, look comparable to sexual assault. As the American legal scholar Josephine Ross recently pointed out, the only distinction between some police searches and sexual violence is that officers wield the impersonal authority of the state.

The story of gender and policing, then, is a long one. The recent findings of ‘toxic masculinity’ and ‘institutional misogyny’ in the Metropolitan Police reveal the latest in a long line of abuses of police power. But the early modern origins of masculinised policing also show that this pattern is entangled with one of the most basic structures of law enforcement as we know it: the idea of a police officer as an impersonal agent of the state. To escape from the long shadow of policing’s gendered past, we may need to think again about where an officer’s authority comes from, who or what they represent, and how to properly recognise and regulate the discretionary exercise of their powers.

Gender and Policing in Early
Modern England by Jonah Miller

About The Author

Jonah Miller

Jonah Miller is a Research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge....

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