First Police in Dresses

The Queensland police force employed its first female policewomen on 16 March 1931. The two women, chosen from 60 applicants, were initially appointed for a 12-month probationary period and were stationed at Roma Street, Brisbane.

They came from very different backgrounds. Miss Ellen O’Donnell was 35 years old when she was appointed. She lived in Gympie and was a talented pianist and singer who kept house for her brother. When interviewed for the position, she thought she would not get the role, but if she did, she believed she would do it well. She certainly did! She served as a policewoman for over 31 years, retiring on 1 July 1962 at 66 years old. Unfortunately, she passed away a few months later.

Roma Street Police Station, 1966; ITM435741

Miss Zara Dare worked with the Salvation Army and its missions for 17 years before becoming a policewoman. Her missionary work included working in China, and she eventually returned to Queensland and became a State Organiser of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for 12 months. Miss Dare was appointed as a policewoman when she was 45 years old. She resigned nine years later in order to marry James Wilson. At the time, married women were not allowed to be policewomen, a restriction that was only removed in 1971. She passed away in 1965 at age 79.

Compared to policewomen today, the roles of our first policewomen were very limited. They were never sworn in, they had no powers to arrest and did not wear uniforms, although they did have police badges.

Memo from Police Commissioner Ryan to the Home Secretary on the question of why the women police had not yet been sworn in, February 1932; ITM1139495

In The Queenslander on 27 February 1936, Eric Hanman wrote of the policewomen’s role in patrolling the streets and parks. On one occasion the policewomen helped protect a destitute, homeless 17-year-old English girl from a man who wanted to marry her. The policewomen realised the man had deserted his own wife and children, held a criminal record, was lurking in Spring Hill, and was described as having ‘a bestial manner of wringing his livelihood from the earnings of fallen women’. The policewomen came to the rescue of the girl and, with the assistance of the Home Secretary, she was given free passage home to England.

At that time, policewomen did not receive the same pay or superannuation as their male colleagues. Their role focused on protecting women, girls and children. Some of their activities involved conducting body searches of females and escorting female prisoners.

Letter outlining the allowances, pay and lack of benefits afforded to the appointed policewomen; ITM319729

The Queensland police force eventually became more progressive regarding rank and entitlements for women. In 1965, Miss Roslyn Kelleher became one of the first policewomen in uniform who had powers to arrest. Her badge number was PW 11 – PW for ‘Police Woman’ to distinguish her from her male colleagues.  Five years later, policewomen were finally awarded equal pay and in 1971, Noela Holman became the first female Officer-in-Charge of a police station. She was 29 years old.  

Currently, women comprise 28.2 per cent of the officer workforce, a ratio of one woman to every 2.5 men. Meanwhile, 12.8 per cent of police officers in leadership are women, a ratio of one to every 6.82 men, which has slightly improved since 2016 when women comprised just 8.4 per cent of police officers in senior ranks. 

Eighty-eight years after our first policewomen were inducted, Queensland appointed its first female Police Commissioner, Ms Katarina Carroll, on 8 July 2019. Commissioner Carroll, who started general duties in 1983, was Queensland’s twentieth Police Commissioner in the organisation’s 155-year history.

Queensland’s Policewomen at Work, Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld, 1931)

About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit

Leave a Reply