The Moral Cleanup of the Nation

After Poland regained its independence after the First World War, the Polish government established the women’s police force dedicated to combating the moral degradation of the country, where the presence of prostitution, human trafficking, and venereal disease had steadily increased at the turn of the twentieth century, and poverty was wide-spread, especially in large cities.

Although the Polish nation achieved its independence, this was only the beginning of a long unification process. In an account by female police commandant Stanisława Paleolog, Poland during the Partitions was economically and morally devastated; the partitioning powers – Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary – sought to prevent uprisings and minimize rebellions after Polish lands were divided up among the three empires. The strategy for containment depended on keeping Polish people largely poor and undereducated.

After an appeal from the League of Nations to form a police force comprised of women, the Polish government, in an attempt to restore hygiene and moral decency to the state, formed the Women Police of Poland in 1925.

A saluting policewoman in 1937

Fit for Duty

The women who enlisted in the police force had to possess certain qualities that were deemed desirable for the work they were going to undertake. The recruits underwent training for three months. In order to be considered for the police force, they had to:

  • be at least secondary school-educated (two were university graduates)
  • be physically strong
  • have an unblemished moral character
  • have at least some experience in public service
  • be between 21 and 40 years old and unmarried

The police force was created on the basis of a previous track record of proven success and ability of fighting women who had participated in the rebellions in the nineteenth century and the Polish-Soviet War in the early twentieth. In fact, Stanisława Paleolog was chosen to be commandant of the force based on her wartime experience. This trust that women could stand up to the rigors of the job as well as men was evidenced by the training, education, and pay of the force, which were all equal to that of the male police force.

Training began on 16 April 1925 with 30 recruits. The courses the women underwent were the same courses their male counterparts had to undergo, with additional coursework in sanitary and social subjects, due to the nature of the work they would be involved in. The first recruits were trained by men; the women, having finished the theoretical courses, were sent to undergo practical training in Warsaw and in Łódź, in the existing men’s brigade. The idea was for them to gradually form their own brigades as the number of female recruits grew.

Graduation day at the police academy, 1939
The first graduating class of the women's police force of Poland in 1925. Stanisława Paleolog is seated in the front row, center

(Wo)men's Work

But despite its promising start, gendered stereotypes soon relegated the women’s police force to social welfare tasks where their traditional feminine traits were seen as better serving. Though it offered interwar women the opportunity to develop a career in a traditionally masculine role, the force was an example of the struggle interwar Polish women felt to be both modern and traditional.

The women were limited in their work. Although they had gone through the same training as male officers, they were not allowed to make arrests themselves and instead had to wait for a male police officer to arrive at the scene to officially carry out that responsibility. They were denied the full privilege of their roles, whether because they were thought to be unable to make such weighty decisions themselves or because they would not be taken seriously if they did so.

Where they were trusted to excel was in cases dealing with sex trafficking and prostitution, where their femininity supposedly aided their work. Polish police leadership felt that women were better equipped to deal with cases of prostitution and trafficking than male officers. Women were thought of as kind, gentle, empathetic, and lovely to look at compared to a male officer, which earned her the trust of scared runaway children and juvenile delinquents.

The women of the police force sacrificed much for the opportunity to work in their field. The police work required discipline, which the predominantly male recruiters believed would be impossible to adhere to if a woman was married or had children. The women opting into service had to be between the ages of twenty-five and forty, effectively pledging their fertility away with the promise to not marry for seven years upon their appointment to the force. In addition to this, the women were also required to keep a neat and modest appearance, cutting their hair short and not wearing makeup in order to subdue their feminine allure.

A policewoman carrying a young boy in 1939
Two policewomen leading a boy to headquarters, 1939
A policewoman in Warsaw, 1939

Called to Duty

What began as an experimental project employing thirty women in 1925, grew to a force of three hundred women during its final year of existence on the eve of the Second World War in 1939. The force was well-organized and successful, even attracting the attention of the British women’s force who took the example of their Polish counterpart to structure their own.

The women who sought to join the ranks of the police force took on an unconventional role. They were devoted to their profession, often at the expense of their personal lives, but felt called to duty. These women worked tirelessly, fulfilling a role they believed would help strengthen the nation by curtailing the spread of prostitution and human trafficking.

Ultimately, the outbreak of the Second World War cut their efforts short, but even so, the women police force of Poland was ahead of its time, redefining what kind of work women were able to do in the 1920s and 1930s and taking on a role more suited to society’s perception of masculinity.

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