I am the problem. Other women like me, who want to put a stop to all the noise and just do the job, are the problem. Sometimes, the problem is the solution.
Some of you will not like what I’m about to say, and that’s okay. I’ll make this clear, I don’t care. You don’t agree with me? You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember, I am too. What’s not acceptable is attacking someone for having opinions that differ from yours. We fight for rights for women and call ourselves “feminists” but attack the nearest one who dares to differ from our opinion. Well, I’m done with that conversation. So here we go: it’s 2020 and you’re a woman in the fire service, you’re the first for your department, or you just ran your first all girl crew? Congrats, I don’t care. What I do care about is what you did to earn that spot, and what you will continue to do to make yourself and the job better.
The constant back and forth battle of what women should call themselves is frustrating, exhausting, and frankly has no place in today’s fire service. I’m angry that it takes priority in conversations. Why, when I share an article on building construction, is the primary feedback the fact that the title says “Fireman” instead of “Firefighter”? Why are we not focused on the real problem, that the majority of us don’t fully understand the buildings we’re crawling in to? Are we really that insecure of our place in the industry that we are defined by a word? They say spite is just motivated anger, so trigger warning: I am a female, and I am a fireman. Merriam Webster defines fireman as “a member of a fire department.” I love the tradition of the word. Don’t lecture me on how the “traditional” fire service doesn’t include women. At the time you are referring to where there were few to no women on the job, there were hardly any women in the work force. It’s not a fair comparison, and frankly taking it out of context. Some say we could choose to use the word firefighter to be more “inclusive.” If you choose to, good for you, as a fellow fireman says, “there’s no right or wrong in the fire service: just best, better, and different.”
Before you attack me, understand that I have the right to have this opinion. I was the first female on both my volunteer and paid departments. The guys had to get used to having a “girl” around. We have an open bunk and locker room, they had to adjust where they change and sleep. I didn’t ask for it, but they hung curtains at the ends of the beds for privacy- for everyone. We have one bathroom which is used to shower. There’s now a flip sign hung that we can change from men to women. They had to order smaller everything, from turnout gear to EMS gloves. I in turn had to prove myself to my guys, that I had what it takes; both mentally and physically to do the job. But here’s the thing, every new hire does. That’s not some sexist “prove your worth” thing because I am a woman. There is unfortunately a stereotype about women in the industry. I firmly believe this discussion fuels that problem. I like to think I proved that definition didn’t fit me, and that I’m just another member of the crew.
I have one question: we’re not supposed to call ourselves firemen, are we not allowed to use the word “woman” anymore either? God forbid it has the word “man” in it. Must I refer to myself simply as “female” instead? If you can’t see that there are more important things for us to be worried about than what we call ourselves, then you and I are not going to get along. It’s been proven to me more times that I can count that the people who focus on telling you who they are, more than what they know, don’t really know anything. So I’m taking the advice of others before me and trying not to let my emotions be the messenger. But let’s be real; being triggered by a simple word tells me a lot of what I need to know about you. Keyboard warriors who sit behind a screen and belittle those who are trying to do the work. Well ladies, it’s really no surprise to me: soft hands equal soft feelings.
We’ve spent decades trying to earn our place as “equal to men,” yet for some women, when they enter the fire service they suddenly want to be treated as different. With the exception of properly fitting gear, which I’ll admit is sometimes hard to find, you should have zero expectations as far as the department making changes for you. I hear complaining on physical fitness standards, how they’re aimed at failing women. How expectations and standards should be lowered because “a woman couldn’t possibly pass that.” No lady, just put in the extra effort. Firefighting is hard, the standards should be hard to meet too. Plaster and lathe isn’t going to suddenly overhaul itself when you swing the axe and it realizes you’re not a man. I have failed more physical agility tests than I want to admit. But did I go back to the department and demand they change them? No. I trained harder until I was able to pass.
We demand private sleeping arrangements and bathrooms like we think every male we work with is going to attack us or violate our privacy. Don’t get me wrong, I know that stuff happens, but it’s not the majority, and it has the potential to happen in any job. It’s not unreasonable to want a bathroom door with a lock to shower or change, but you shouldn’t expect your department to give you your own space just because you’re a woman. How many restaurants or stores have you gone too that had single stall restrooms that were gender neutral? God forbid you have a hazmat fire run, or biohazard EMS call and you have to strip down in the bay- if you can’t trust your guys to be respectful of you in a sports bra and underwear, why in the world are we trusting them on a fire run in people’s homes, or in the back of a medic alone with a patient?
I fully respect and understand those of you who came before us and paved the way. I look up to you and appreciate the struggles you went through to join a male dominated industry. I’m honored to have met some of you, and call a special few my friends and mentors. Some of you had vastly different experiences than most are today. I’m not going to discount that. I understand that 20+ years ago being a female in the fire service was an uphill battle that probably felt like you were climbing Mount Everest. I also understand that everyone’s experiences are different, but focusing on the problem doesn’t make it go away. It’s all about perception. So instead of continuing to focus on gender as some obstacle we must overcome (as if you can control it) focus on being better at the job. Today there are still some uphill battles, I myself have had to explain that “no sir, I’m not just an EMT.” And “yes ma’am they do let girls drive the trucks now.” I once even had to explain to a guest in our station that I wasn’t “in my place in the kitchen,” I was the driver that day, which meant I was in charge of cooking. But do I dwell on this and let it warp my opinion of the industry and those we serve? No, I laugh it off and move on.
Honestly, I’ve been torn down more by other women in the industry than men. Why is it that as “powerful women” we claim to support each other and want equality, yet the dogs attack if opinions differ. I’ve had tenured woman tell me that I’m too new to understand, as if I haven’t had some of my own hills to climb. I’ve been told to “come back and talk too me after 25 years,” as if after all that time I’ll be a hardened man-hater. I don’t need to be on the job for 25 years to know that if men had a group called “Masculine Male Firemen” there would be an uproar of hatred. I respect the point of groups where there are only women, it’s a place to allow individuals to ask personal questions and get support. However, lately most of what I’ve seen has included mostly bashing on men or ranting about how “poorly” women are treated. I think they’ve lost sight of their purpose. I also don’t need to be at retirement to tell you that the most important thing to know about someone isn’t their title, but their experience and what they did for others. Principles have no tenure.
Let’s have a history lesson. Women have been in the fire service in the U.S. for over 200 years. The first known was Molly Williams in 1815. Molly was an African American slave who became a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11 in New York City. The first documented all-women’s fire brigade was at Girton Ladies’ College in Great Britain from 1878-1932. From 1910-1920 there were all women volunteer fire companies in Maryland and California, and another formed in Texas in the 1960s. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the first career women firefighters were hired in the1960s.This being said, I will never understand why in 2020 is it still such a huge deal when a woman is hired on a department, or when a truck is run by women. Why we scream for inclusivity and equality, but then purposefully say “look at me I’m a girl.” In the thickness of smoke and sweat your only identity is your ability.
I go to work everyday with the intention of setting myself apart, not to be better than the guys I work with, but to be better than I was my last shift. Your goal should be to set yourself apart by your work ethic, not your gender. So instead of focusing on what we are, let’s focus on things we can change. The public doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman. What they do care about is if you can do the job when the time comes. So instead of focusing on trivial issues, lets take our attention to the thing that matters most: quality, realistic, and relevant training. Let’s focus on on the community we serve, and remember “nobody gives a shit what you are on the fireground as long as you’re capable.”