I saw on twitter the other day that Beth was readying to fight for her right to participate with her town’s volunteer fire fighters, as she had done previously in Oregon. She had mentioned in my comments, on a post about inequality, that she was facing discrimination of her own, in a situation she had never anticipated… seeing as how it’s the year 2012 and that shit is ridiculous. I asked if she would share her story, hoping that it inspires the rest of us who experience small moments of sexism to stand up for ourselves and not let it slide, and also cheer on those who are fighting bigger, riskier fights that will make our daughter’s worlds better. I’m incredibly honored to have her writing here, and Beth is now one of the bravest people I know.
“Chief wants to know if you’d be interested in going through academy.” I’m pretty sure I looked at F. like he had two heads. Then I burst into tears. I was alternately overwhelmed by the idea and fascinated that someone would give someone like me a chance.
I overcame my initial fears and tears about being a firefighter to whole-heartedly embrace fire academy, to push myself to haul hose, climb ladders, and don an SCBA as well as any man in the class—and I succeeded. I came home from academy tired but happy. The following months found me wielding a chainsaw on the roof of a house with a smoldering fire in the ceiling, responding on medical calls, and manning a hose line with F. on a toaster fire. When I finished grad school and we moved away from the department that had given me a chance to discover something about myself, I had no doubt that I would again be a firefighter.
Eight months later we bought a house in a tiny Idaho town (population about 650) and looked forward to opportunities to help the community. The very first night we spent in our house there was a fire department meeting. We introduced ourselves and expressed interest in joining the department. We were thanked for coming by. Then they asked us to leave because they hold “closed meetings.”
When we were told that we just needed to keep showing interest, we worried it would take us awhile to make it into the department because we were “outsiders” in this small community. We showed up to the meetings twice more, each time being asked to leave before the meeting started (fire department “policy”). Turns out that being an outsider was only partially right. By April, they “made room” on the twenty-five person roster for F. (capped at 25 for insurance reasons despite the fact many “members” never show up to calls or training) and relegated me to wait for an EMT class to be held.
I had not expected that my gender would factor into the situation. As it turns out, rumor has it that the department has never had a female firefighter. I kept my head down but began attending the work parties and drills (training) along with F. My hope was to show that I could work hard and be one of the guys.
In July, a rare event occurred: a working house fire. I responded in the ambulance arriving just after the fire engine. I watched F. don an SCBA to perform a search for the resident rumored to be inside with a complicated bunch of feelings: first, concern for him as he struggled with the older and unfamiliar regulator and mask; second, anger as I watched firefighters who did not know how to wear the equipment enter the house while I watched; and third, the need to find something helpful to do with myself ASAP. I helped manipulate the hose outside, I ran (literally) to the fire hall to come back with water, I picked up garbage, rolled dirty hose, and retrieved our truck to help take that hose back to the station. As I left the fire hall, I heard, “Thanks. You did as much work as most of the firefighters today.” After F.’s strong leadership and my work, I really believed I was on my way.
At the next month’s meeting, F. suggested that they reconsider me for membership on the department. Sidestepping the issue by saying they’d “need to consider the roster” (and then not doing so, at least during the meeting), they then reiterated that only firefighters could be on the fire ground or at drills (logical for insurance reasons, devastating for me). I began to pick fights with F. almost every time he returned from being at the fire hall. I was angry, unhappy, and felt extremely isolated. The town is too small to talk to anyone about
what was happening (everyone is connected somehow or another).
Eventually, I reached out to a mentor back in Oregon at the department I trained with. She understood why I was hurt and angry. She let me vent a little, but she also wasn’t afraid to point out how fighting the entrenched system in a small town could be really painful. Fighting the status quo could lead to social isolation for me…and F. I struggled and cried and didn’t know what to do.
Then about a month ago, I realized that I would always be resentful of the fire department and even worse, the town, if I didn’t do anything about the problem. We’d bought our house and a cabin nearby, I’d become a member of the library board, F. was kicking butt on the department and as a member of the planning and zoning board. We were getting married and planning on living right here.
My first step in fighting back was to file a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). I made lists of other ways I might combat this if the EEOC is unable to help (the state Human Rights Commission, fighting the closed meetings, educating the public) and researched how other small volunteer departments handle themselves. The EEOC charge is moving forward slowly but the process is uncertain, because as an all volunteer department employment laws may or may not apply. I’m in a holding pattern again, albeit one where I feel like I have a bit of control.