The Yorkshire Ripper Investigation: a Total Disaster, from A Feminist Perspective

In memory of Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne McDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, Jacqueline Hill.

Even if you did not live in the 1980s, you have certainly heard of the Yorkshire Ripper. He was a serial killer in the UK active between 1975 to 1980 who murdered 13 women and attempted to murder 7 more. It was a real shock for people at that time that the police could not catch the perpetrator for over five years. It was also a shock that the police caught him on a regular patrol because of a traffic offence, entirely based on luck. It was an even bigger shock that it was later revealed that the police actually interviewed him 9 times and did not follow up on him. Some people blamed this total disaster on the insufficient experience of the police at that time, after all the concept of a ‘serial killer’ was still new in British crime. Some blamed the inefficient corporation between the police branches as by 1974, many small boroughs amalgamated with the county and this led to the loss of lots of knowledge regarding the local communities.

40 years later, Netflix re-examined the police investigation closely and a documentary series was made. It is revealed that the biggest reason behind this total disaster was not because of those mentioned above. In fact, one of the biggest reasons was the police force’s bias and stereotypes against women that misdirected their investigation. In this article, based on the materials in the Netflix series, it is analysed that the inequality in mindset and planning of the police force had led to the investigation being a total failure. 

Officers search for the body of Jacqueline Hill, one of Sutcliffe's victims. (Credit: Getty Images)

Inequality in the mindset 

One obvious inequality in mindset against women was the heavy bias and stereotypes based on by the police force throughout the whole investigation. Starting from the first victim, Wilma Mccan, the police force was trapped by the stereotype that the murder were chasing sex workers. They became convinced that the Ripper was targeting sex workers and the national attention became focused on the spate of murders with the first killing of a woman who was not a sex worker, deemed by the police and the media to be an ‘innocent’ victim due to her ‘higher moral standing’. In police reports, it is revealed that the police force was indeed heavily fixed with these prejudices. For example, the police force had generalised victims as ‘prostitutes’ or women with ‘loose morale’, even though subsequently it is discovered that there was no basis for these assumptions and that some of the early victims were in fact not prostitutes. 

The police force are criticised for basing their whole investigation’s focus and direction on the assumption that the victims the murderer targeted were prostitutes. The categorisation of the murderer as a prostitute killer drove the investigation into the wrong path as they led to the police failing to realise that the Ripper did not only target prostitutes, even though most of his victims were such, largely because of the circumstances in which the Ripper killed his victims. They failed to realise that he chose to kill prostitutes because they were more vulnerable. This had further led to the later inefficient in narrowing down suspects and evidence. The police force also dismissed and missed out on important survivors and witnesses that may help identify the Ripper as they did not fit the ‘prostitute type’. One of the survivors, Olive Smelt, was not a sex worker, and was dismissed by the police when she suspected that the person who attacked her was the Ripper. She could have helped significantly as she remembered features of the Ripper. 

There was another inequality in mindset shown throughout the investigation. The unequal, conservative mindset that danger prevention’s primary responsibility is on women was shown in developing prevention policies by the police force. This conservative mindset refers to the unequal, way heavier focus on women’s responsibility to protect themselves. Under a conservative education system, a strong weight was placed on teaching women to protect themselves, to not go out alone at night, to not wear revealing clothes, to watch their drinks, etc. As to the education of the other gender, there was not much to teach them to respect others. When something bad happens, the basic instinct is that the victim did not do enough, or that she ‘invited’ the assaults. In the later stage of the investigation, when the police finally started to realise that all women are targets of the Ripper, instead of just those they termed ‘prostitutes’, these conservative mindsets and methods were employed into safety policies development. For example, the police tried to place a curfew on women which included instructing them not to go out late at night alone. What the police did not realise is that these stereotypes and biases had in fact normalised attacks on women. 

Past and present feminists asked: Why are women told to protect themselves? Why shouldn’t they go out at night? Why are we told to do more when we are not the ones doing the killings or raping? Why no one told man not to rape or kill? I believe that had the police force questioned themselves with these questions, they would very likely have been on the right track since the very beginning. And there would have been less victims. Such regulatory behaviours are still placed upon women, the onus of their personal safety being on them. 

Inequality in human resources allocation 

The last unequal treatment against women can be seen in human resources allocation within the police force. The majority involved in the investigation were male. All personale in key positions overseeing the investigation and operation were male. Women’s perspectives were not respected or even introduced into the investigation. The situation was not fully understood and has led to the investigation being inefficient. 


The biases and stereotypes against women and particularly sex workers were heavily relied upon during the investigation. The male domination of the investigation and operation reveals that a balanced viewpoint, which would have greatly assisted the investigation, was not present. This has led to wrong investigation directions and the lack of inefficiency in understanding the situation. All in all, the unequal mindset and planning of the police force was one of the main reasons that the investigation was a total disaster. 


In face of the unequal treatment and the police force’s incompetence, women at that time started realising that the incompetence of the police force will not lead to the capture of the Ripper. They knew that if they keep on relying on the police force in protecting them, they will never be safe and their lives will never be back to normal. They could not take it anymore. 

Thus, women started to unite together and there was feminist protests, debates and women’s self defence classes and teams all around the city and campuses. For example, there was the ‘Reclaim the Night’ protest on the 12th of November 1977, organised by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, to protest against the curfew on women and generally, male violence against women. Finally, women took the matter of protecting themselves into their hands and stopped replying on those who basically “allowed” the Ripper to commit more murders. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

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