Taking the Heat


When my peers say, “We are not ready for a woman president,” I wonder how they came to this conclusion. What in their experiences makes a woman president an impossibility? Our thoughts create our reality. Repeated thoughts become our facts. What can change our realities? My answer would be reading and other people’s influences. Seeing women trailblazers performing jobs we associate with men may cause a pause in our thinking. Dr. Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel space, drew her inspiration from Astronaut Sally Ride. Female astronauts show girls that they can reach for the stars. Another option is to recognize a ceiling mentality in our own lives and bit by bit, see it for what it is. 

Ingrained habits are weeded out when we recognize them as unhelpful and are willing to go through the uncomfortableness to change them, or as Pema Chödran, an ordained nun, phrases it, “Lean into it.” Three years after moving to a new place, still I went nowhere without my teddy bear, the GPS. Edith, you’ve been here three years and still can’t find your way around. Then it came to me, while Tim’s parallel parking beats mine every time, his knowing his way around town was because he did all the driving. I can get through life without parallel parking, but not without driving. Come to think of it, when you see older couples in a car, who is driving? It’s behaviors we don’t question that define how we see ourselves. I prefer that he drive, you may tell yourself. But that’s because you don’t see yourself having an option to be in the driver’s seat. For that to happen, your thinking must change. I leaned in and told Tim that even though he preferred to do the driving, it was not in my interest. To find my way around and feel comfortable driving on expressways for years to come, I needed to do some of the driving.  

Aside from the Oval Office, there are few workplaces left in the US where women have not gained entry. One of the last strongholds of male monopoly that endures is fire departments. In 2020, many fire departments have only one woman or none. 

Baby boomer women’s choices didn’t include, “I’m going to be a firefighter when I grow up,” any more than my five-year-old daughter’s (born in 1983) career aspiration, “When I grow up I want to be a dad” could be realized. But that’s changing, and women firefighters are multiplying and are increasingly accepted. Girls growing up to be dads—not so much.

Women’s progress is because a handful of women were and are willing to fight for equality in the workplace. Weaved throughout our history, women who aspired to be firefighters didn’t take NO for an answer. Change like ocean waves are generated by energy transfers. Like the visible sea current, we are witnessing women’s efforts paying off, but let’s not forget and take a moment to appreciate those who paved the way.

New York, 1818, Molly Williams, an African American slave, fought fire along with her firefighter owner and was said to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” True, she may not have had a choice, but clearly she did the work well. In 1895, Carrie Rockefeller became a member of Engine Company #1 in West Haven, Connecticut. In the late sixties, a handful of women in Woodbine, Texas, using proceeds from raffles and bake sales, purchased a used Ford pumper. The U.S. Forest Service provided their training. They grew to 23 and served their community for 11 years. 

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to prevent women from applying for jobs as firefighters. All around the country, women joined fire departments and dealt with ill-fitting equipment, and harassment from their male co-workers. 

Sandra Forcier, Winston-Salem (1973), became the first woman in the US to be paid as a firefighter. In 1974, the San Diego Civil Service Commission “orders the hiring of women and minorities and minority men into the fire department. An organized opposition hires legal counsel to block the order. The San Diego Fire Department nevertheless puts five women into recruit training but pushes them out before completing the 12-week course.” Later, the women win an out-of-court settlement. The same year, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, an African-American woman, Genois Wilson, was hired by the Indiana Fire Department. She goes on to pioneer the country’s first fire safety programs for deaf children.

In the mid-1970s, Linda Strader didn’t set out to be a trailblazer; she just wanted to be a firefighter. “Didn’t give it a second thought whether or not I could do it, I just figured I could.” She was the only woman on the Forest Service fire crew. The men didn’t want her there. “Told me to my face, ‘Well, I think women belong barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, really?” In time, they found her to be a competent crew member and, no doubt, it affected how they viewed women as firefighters. 

In 1978, Brenda Berkman filed what turned out to be a game-changing lawsuit against the New York Fire Department and the City of New York for gender discrimination after all 90 women failed the test to be firefighters. In 1982, the court ruled in Berkman’s favor. The city was ordered to revise the test to reflect what firefighters do on the job, climbing stairs, dragging hoses, swinging axes, and conducting searches. This time, 42 women passed the test. “She dealt with the backlash that came from her landmark victory throughout her career.” 111 In 2018, Brenda, also an accomplished artist, created an exhibit in the Brooklyn courthouse where she won her federal sex discrimination suit, “Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade Center.” 

In 1980, Lauren Howard was the first female firefighter at the Chicago Fire Department, and later became the first female captain. When hired, concerns about women and men sharing sleeping quarters and facilities. She didn’t see it that way. “I found no place safer than to sleep in the bunk room with firefighters. …the safest places on Earth.”

When a co-worker told her his wife didn’t like the idea of him sleeping in the same room as a woman, she told him, “Then you’ll have to find yourself a new job. I’m here to stay.”

Brenda Berkman’s work didn’t mean full gender equality. For decades, New York City held the record of having the lowest percentage of women firefighters (0.65%) of all major departments (except for Cleveland). But in September 2018, “an all-women staffed FDNY engine company served the City of New York for the first time in the department’s 153 history.” 

Women’s willingness to be at the brunt of resistance from males and even some women are paying off.  Although they represent only four percent of firefighters (US Department of Labor), attitudes towards them are improving. Today, 11,000 women work as career firefighters and have created an international association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service (Women in Fire) where they helped establish firefighters’ qualifications and are considered an authoritative reference on gender issues in the fire service.