Too Far Back for Comfort

One thing most fire and rescue service women have noticed in the media coverage of the September 11 attacks, and particularly of the World Trade Center collapse, is a heavy use of the words "fireman" and "firemen." All of the television networks and many newspapers and web sites have reverted to this type of language at one point or another; some just occasionally, others more persistently. Only the fire service itself -- national voices such as the IAFF, the IAFC, and FEMA, most notably -- have consistently called firefighters "firefighters."

The media is using exclusionary terms to refer their new-found heroes, and it's no accident. Reporters haven't simply forgotten the word "firefighter" exists. And the alternative is neither cumbersome or unfamiliar. "Firefighter," a nicely descriptive term, has been around and in common usage for a hundred years or more.

When you say "policeman" (which we've also been hearing a lot lately) or "fireman" you imply a necessary connection between gender and occupation. "Firemen" is the perfect word to use when want to say, "All (real) firefighters are men." It is a deliberate rejection of the gender-neutral in order to define heroes as male. And that's exactly why these words are all over the news.

You can see this most clearly if you have the stomach to read the conservative columnists, some of whom were nothing short of enraptured, drooling on their keyboards at the opportunity to make demigods out of those possessed of the proper set of chromosomes. Kate O'Beirne, in the National Review, went so far as to use the World Trade Center tragedy as a justification for the FDNY's failure to hire women and an excuse to dredge up all the old arguments over the department's physical abilities test. And Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said, "We're all supposed to say firefighter, but they were all men, great men, and fireman is a good word. Firemen put out fires and save people."

Of course, I wouldn't expect a Kate O'Beirne ever to come around to the idea of women firefighters, so I don't exactly feel betrayed by her nastiness. But, unfortunately, one need not go nearly so far out in right field to find defenders of firefighting masculinity. Respected newspapers such as the New York Times and some magazines usually farther left have been guilty as well. Feminist Kate Clinton, a Manhattan resident, spent part of her recent column in The Progressive talking about her neighbor in the apartment across the hall, a "fireman" lost at the World Trade Center.

The word for people who do our job is "firefighters," whether it refers to men, women, or both. "Firemen" does for gender something we would never do for other factors. For example, we would never condone incorporating racial terms into job titles: even if it were linguistically possible to construct a word like "firewhiteman," we would find the concept abhorrent. Why? Because it's racist. It's completely inappropriate. Race does not determine one's ability to be a firefighter. No more does gender, but that hasn't been stopping the reporters. There's something deeper going on here.

When everything around us turns to chaos, we seek security by hanging onto what is familiar. Fear leads us to step back from the unknown, from risks, from change. We find solace in tradition, and safety in things "the way they've always been."

When 100-story buildings can disappear into smoking piles of rubble in the space of a few minutes on a sunny morning, the future suddenly becomes very uncertain. We no longer know what we can trust. So we reach back for comfort into the safety of the past -- in this case, to a time when (as the story goes) men were heroes, and women were weak and needed to be protected. Such a world-view doesn't just imply that women can't be firefighters. It requires it.

The progress women have made in fields such as the military, police, and firefighting -- jobs where one risks one's life to protect others -- has always been against a vigorous countercurrent of tradition. Many people adamantly resist seeing women as brave, heroic, or strong, and this extends to public perceptions of women's role in the fire service today.

If you're familiar with a popular line of firefighter figurines called "Red Hats of Courage," you've seen this in action. While the creators do include female firefighters in a few of the pieces shown on the company's website, the women are never doing anything physical, or even standing near a tool, a fire scene, or a hose line. One is walking alongside a male firefighter; another is receiving a kiss from a young girl whose doll she has rescued. Men, on the other hand, are shown operating a nozzle, backing up a hose line, dashing through a window frame carrying a child, forcing a car door open with a jaws tool... you get the picture.

Resistance to seeing women as strong, heroic people who can rescue others (especially men) is not new. I got a tiny glimpse of this one evening when I was still a teenager. An early-season snowstorm had caught rush-hour traffic off-guard, canceling classes at the university downtown. Cut loose from the lectures, students occupied themselves usefully by pushing cars that were having trouble negotiating a slight hill just before the freeway on-ramp.

We pushed dozens of cars that evening, enjoying the exertion and the weather and the ability to be helpful. But the one individual driver I remember, out of so many (and so long ago now) was a young man who pushed my arm away from his vehicle in some annoyance, and said, "I don't want any girl pushing my car."

In the same way, many women who came into firefighting in the 1970's and 1980's can remember male firefighters telling them, "I don't want any woman dragging me out of a fire." And while it was always amusing to respond, "Fine -- then I won't," the underlying meaning is less easily brushed off. Something like a third of California fire chiefs surveyed in the late 1970's said they wouldn't hire a female firefighter, even if she were fully competent to do the job. This was not about ability. This was about defending old values and traditional beliefs about appropriate gender roles. And those are the beliefs surfacing so strongly right now.

Male firefighters in one fire department that has been very progressive in diversifying its workforce in recent years went to the fire chief following the World Trade Center collapse. They asked him, "Now can we stop all this hiring of women?" To them, the FDNY's losses somehow made it obvious that, when you get right down to it, firefighters should be men. When it gets right down to firefighters getting killed and being heroes, it's time to cut out all the nonsense.

Seeking inclusion in a moment of such unimaginable tragedy has been made a delicate task for us as fire service women. We want to show unity and support, not differences and dissension. The critical point is to recognize that it is the people who are saying "firemen" who are being divisive. They are deliberately and unnecessarily using language that makes us invisible, and they are betting either that women firefighters will not dare to speak up, or that our role is so insignificant that our exclusion does not matter at all.

Speaking up for fairness does not diminish either the courage or the sacrifice of those whose lives were taken on September 11. No one's heroism is diminished by accurate, inclusive language. A "fireman" is not braver than a "firefighter."

All 343 firefighters and officers lost at the World Trade Center were men.* This reflects the way the FDNY has tested and hired over the past two decades, but it proves nothing about the merits or failures of women firefighters or the testing process. What it proves is that FDNY firefighters are brave and do their job. If there had been one, or two, or twenty women among the dead, that would still be true. We wholeheartedly honor the memory and the courage of the firefighters who were killed, and we reject the suggestion that we must be invisible in order to do so.

Terese M. Floren

*That no female firefighters died was to some extent a matter of chance, and in great measure due to the fact that only 25 of New York City's 11,500 firefighters are women. (The new group of 308 recruits that started the FDNY's academy in late October does not change this number.)

This article first appeared in the Octber 2001 issue of Firework, the newsletter of Women in the Fire Service, Inc. It is copyright © 2001 Terese M. Floren and may not be reproduced by any means without the specific written permission of the author.




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