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The Thin Blue Hemline

THERE WERE THE WELL-MEANING PRACTICAL JOKES: A LOAF OF ITALIAN BREAD formed in the shape of a penis and balls left on a desk. There was the SLA shootout, and being the only female working the command post. There was morning watch, when women working the jails had to change from their flat jail shoes, put on hats and high heels, then go outside to salute the flag. There were the pettipants female officers would don for added modesty when pulling a jail shift at Harbor, where there were frequent fights. And there was the time, after a donnybrook with a suspect, a purse with gun inside ended up in the hands of a passerby. Being a cop has never been easy; being a woman cop -- especially prior to the mid-'70s consent degree that gave women equal rights to promotions and job assignments, and allowed female officers to wear pants -- was for the toughest and the bravest only.

When Rita Knecht and Gail Ryan were sworn in to the LAPD in 1967, there were two academies, one for men and one for women, as well as designated male and female positions within the department. Women cops ended up working the jails, juvenile, business office, front desk or sex crimes. They could be loaned to narcotics, or vice, or homicide, but they couldn't be assigned there, and they couldn't rise above a sergeant's stripes. Knecht, now a lieutenant, and Ryan, who retired in 2000 after almost 33 years, never felt like they were on the frontline of change in the LAPD -- most careers for women then didn't offer many options, although the pay was better at LAPD -- but they were often the first (Knecht was the first female adjutant to a staff officer), and always strived to be the best (Ryan became known as "The Impound Lady," breaking all records while working auto-theft recovery). They expected sexual harassment coming onto the job -- it happened in private industry as well, they both point out -- and never wasted energy thinking about it. "It was not an issue for us," says Knecht. "We marched on." And indeed they did, in skirts, pantyhose and high heels, shouldering their purses, with guns inside, ready to protect and serve.

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (special thanks to Richard Kalk); except for the last two, courtesy of Rita Knecht. Standby: In the ’30s, policewomen did not have official uniforms; officers such as these pictured working at the Lincoln Heights jail in 1937 wore a nurse’s ensemble. Just the facts, ma’am: The first officially sanctioned LAPD policewoman’s uniform, based on the Navy’s WAVES garb, was introduced in 1947 — the casual front-desk or jail uniform (left), overcoat (middle), the formal dress uniform (right). Bag it: In her official shoulder purse, an officer carried her gun and ammunition, handcuffs, flashlight, a badge, ID, a notebook and pen, a gamewell key that opened up call boxes, and she might be able to squeeze in a comb. Coffee, tea or . . . freeze: In the late ’60s, policewomen’s uniforms were modeled after flight attendants’ outfits; eight out of the 10 women pictured completed at least 20 years’ service (Gail Ryan, third from left; Rita Knecht, fifth from left). Good to go: Lieutenant Rita Knecht, set to retire next month after 35 years of “a great career,” photographed in dress uniform — note the white dickey — in 1974.