Philly just got its first female police commissioner — 45 years after top cop used ‘God’s wisdom’ to keep women off the force

The 1970s PPD was wary of hormones, bad bones and gullibility.

Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter

Acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter

Emma Lee/WHYY
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It’s been a complicated week for women who work in the Philadelphia Police Department.

On one hand, they observed a milestone. The department got its first-ever female police commissioner in its nearly 300-year history. Christine Coulter, a deputy with 30 years of policing under her belt, was promoted to acting commissioner on Tuesday evening.

“I have always been honored as a woman and a police officer to serve in this city,” Coulter said at a press conference the next day.

But the promotion came after a lawsuit that alleged former Police Commissioner Richard Ross failed to respond to harassment complaints made by two female officers, one of whom claimed Ross’ negligence was payback for a romantic affair between them years prior.

That lawsuit also alleges widespread, systemic gender discrimination on the force.

It took another lawsuit levied by the Department of Justice 45 years ago to force Philly police to hire women in the first place.

The landmark court order was preempted by a shockingly sexist trial — even for the ’70s. Male city officials repeatedly refused to hire women. They denied court orders by evoking women’s riptides of hysteria-inducing hormones, their pesky menstruation and “God’s wisdom” as reasons the opposite sex could not work as beat cops.

Here are some of the ridiculous reasons why men wouldn’t hire women cops:

Penelope Brace was the PPD's first female detective.

Penelope Brace was the PPD's first female detective.

Philadelphia Inquirer archives

1970s cops: Women = bad bone structure, emotional problems

Today, the PPD reports that women comprise 27% of their uniformed ranks — far above the 15% national average for police departments.

But prior to 1976, fewer than 100 women worked on the force at any moment. That was less than 1% of the entire department, and nearly all of them were relegated to administrative units like Juvenile Aid and Community Relations. They did not work the streets, carry firearms or make arrests.

In 1974, an officer by the name of Penelope Brace sought to change that. The 10-year PPD veteran filed a discrimination suit against the city, alleging they wouldn’t promote her because of her gender.

Other women officers jumped on board the suit too, soon followed by the Department of Justice. The federal bureau had already wagered 17 suits against cities for their refusal to integrate women into the ranks.

Then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner himself, responded publicly. He argued that Brace was an incompetent police officer — and even called for her firing.

Under Rizzo’s administration, the Philadelphia government levied an “elaborate biological argument” to prevent gender equity, the Inquirer reported at the time. Officials employed a handful of tropes about women. The police commissioner at the time, Rizzo’s successor, Joseph O’Neill, said he wouldn’t hire them in any meaningful capacity — or promote them — because “God, in his wisdom, made them different.”

First thing’s first, as O’Neill explained on the stand, women obviously weren’t outfitted with the proper hormones for police work. Their estrogen prevented the formation of muscular strength, and it made them too emotional, overruling their judgment in serious situations.

The debate over women cops played out in a February 1976 edition of the Inquirer.

The debate over women cops played out in a February 1976 edition of the Inquirer.

Philadelphia Inquirer archives

Of course, a woman could never overcome the limitations of her physical being, O’Neill argued. Her flesh prison is not proportionate, weightwise, to the superior male, the top cop said, and her bone structure is meek in comparison.

“She has an extra layer of fat on her body which makes her vulnerable to physical attack,” O’Neill explained on the stand.

Tragically, women are also afflicted by an unspeakable ailment once a month, which renders their thinking muddy and makes professional duties virtually impossible.

“There are periods in their life when they are psychologically unbalanced because of physical problems that are occurring with them,” O’Neill said.

By way of supporting argument, former PPD inspector Thomas Roselli explained in federal court that women would also make poor detectives, since they’re so gullible: they “generally tend to believe statements made to them.”

“Philadelphia’s insistence that women are the weaker sex is adament,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Inquirer reporter Jan Schaffer, a female who chronicled these court proceedings despite her physical limitations, wrote at the time.

At last, in 1979, women were hired as PPD detectives.

At last, in 1979, women were hired as PPD detectives.

Philadelphia Inquirer archives

Philly ignored two court orders that mandated equity

Indeed, the department’s refusal to hire women equally was pervasive — even after the Department of Justice mandated them to do so.

During the ongoing trial, U.S. District Judge Charles Weiner ordered the city to hire 44 men and 44 women officers in 1975 as a sort of unscientific test. The judge said this would allow the court to determine whether the two sexes performed police work any differently. Convinced their truths to be self-evident, department leaders refused to comply, and the case continued without that evidence.

In December of 1977, Weiner blocked Philly from promoting officers until they started hiring women more fairly. The resulting court order required the force to ensure one in five new hires were women.

Again, Philly didn’t comply, hiring less than 17% women after the order came out.

Meanwhile, evidence from all corners of the United States suggested women could make excellent officers. In 1972, Washington D.C. was among the first cities to hire a new class of cops divided equally by gender. 86 men and 86 women.

Observing the capital patrol, a subsequent Urban Institute report found “sex is not a bona fide occupational qualification for doing patrol police work.”

Then New York fully began integrating its police department in 1978. Former NYPD supervisor Anthony Bouza testified against the PPD in trial that he saw no difference in the way men and women worked as officers in his department.

“I watched [women] perform in some of the worst situations,” Bouza said on the stand. “I thought they performed admirably, that they could be used interchangeably with men, that they had certainly won their spurs.”

The only downside? Bouza thought his male officers weren’t totally comfortable.

“I believe that males believe their safety to be threatened,” Bouza said. “I believe it’s a sincere complaint — not an accurate one, but a sincere one.”

In Philly's police department, obstacles remain for women to this day.

In Philly's police department, obstacles remain for women to this day.

Philadelphia Inquirer archives

Observing the nationwide shift, Philly eventually agreed to integrate women.

In 1979, Judge Weiner and the PPD reached a settlement. The department agreed to stop excluding women from its high ranks, and to include at least 30% women in its next round of hires.

Today, to the tune of a civil rights lawsuit every other month, female officers in Philadelphia allege that the culture of sexism and misogyny persists at every level of the force. But at the time of the court’s decision 40 years ago, it was a step forward for women.

Brace, who originally filed the Philly suit, became the city’s first female detective. As a sergeant in Kensington’s East Detective Division in 1982, she said: “Things are going as well as can be expected. It’s not a natural state of things for men to dislike women.”

Even Rizzo changed his tune by that point, calling women “fine and capable investigators.”

PPD Captain Francis Cavanagh, commander of the Central Detectives unit, said he found women have “more of a drive” than men, because “they had to really fight for what they got.”

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