I'm beginning to think we can chart women's progress in the fire service by looking at bras.
Since I make it my job to notice odd things, I've been noticing this for years, and thanks to a revelation at the 1999 women firefighters' conference in Los Angeles, I can even report that the progress (based on this criterion, at least) appears to be positive.
The earliest connections I've seen between bras and firefighting are in old underwear advertisements. The best-known is a Maidenform ad that dates from the mid-1960's. I have a framed copy of it on my wall, as some of you probably do on yours. It features a non-NFPA compliant "woman firefighter" (in reality, a pretty, pale and un-muscular model with lots of red lipstick and black mascara) leaning off the side of a fire engine, hanging onto a ladder with one hand and waving with the other. She wears a red helmet, shiny black patent-leather boots, red satin hot pants amply trimmed with rhinestones, satiny white gloves, and (of course) a Maidenform bra. "I Dreamed I Went to Blazes in my Maidenform Bra," the caption reads.
Now, it may be fairly argued that this was just part of a rather strange ad campaign that had nothing to do with the fire service. Still, at a time before many women were firefighters, this image probably wasn't far from the truth when it came to how seriously the fire service might take the idea of female firefighters.
The next point on the chart comes in the late 1970's and early '80's, when women first began to get into firefighting at the career level. In some fire departments, and even among some women firefighters, bras became a point of contention. Some fire departments wrote regulations that required women firefighters to wear bras while on duty. This put the station officers (who were all male at that time) in the uncomfortable position of having to enforce the regulation.
Many women firefighters felt it was none of the the department's business what underwear women wore or didn't wear, particularly if men's underwear was not comparably regulated. Other women were offended by the mere suggestion that they would ever consider not wearing a bra, and criticized women who didn't wear one as being unprofessional or sexually inappropriate. For the pro-bra parties (management and firefighters alike), the question of whether the individual woman's build made a bra necessary or unnecessary from the support point of view was apparently irrelevant.
But if the item I found at WFS' Los Angeles conference is any indication, things have come around to a reasonable resolution. One of the booths in the vendor area was selling Los Angeles Fire Department shorts, sweatshirts, ball caps and other clothing. And there, right next to the cash register, was a big stack of Los Angeles Fire Department jogbras. Now, these aren't, precisely speaking, department-issued items, but they do have "LAFD" embroidered in big letters on the front and back. When I inquired, I was told by one L.A. City firefighter that she occasionally strips down to hers when taking a cooling-off break on a fire scene, behind the rig or in some other area appropriately sheltered from the view of the general public.
I find this to be a most positive development: a symbolic recognition that, yes, there are differences between men and women, and yes, we can -- given a couple of decades to work on it -- adjust to them. No need to go off the deep end. No need for a big fuss, regulations, arguments, accusations. We can acknowledge the situation, deal with it appropriately, and go on.
Of course, I promptly bought a bright red one, and will wear it proudly on all suitable occasions. It certainly beats hanging off the side of a fire engine in rhinestoned hot pants.
Terese M. Floren
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE