I hadn't been on the job very long when I began to notice that women were leaving. Of the first two women hired on my department, one quit within two weeks. Another was hired, and she left within a year and a half. The first woman had been labeled as "unsuited" to the job, with boyfriend problems, but the second woman had been a star, destined to become the first woman promoted to engineer and maybe captain. The guys were shocked when she announced she was getting married and moving away.
I wasn't surprised. Although I did not know her well, I knew that I personally thought about quitting all the time. It wasn't that I hated the job. It was that I wasn't yet sure, and letting myself believe I could leave any time gave me a sense of freedom, a way to get through the bad days.
The days weren't all bad. Mostly I enjoyed the job and felt I was treated all right. I wanted to do well, to be liked, and I felt I was having some success. I knew I had it better than many others.
But lately, after nearly seventeen years on the job, I am aware again of women leaving. Now we are not rookies any more, just trying something new, but we have we have ten, fifteen, even twenty years on the job. I see women leaving with a sense of relief and bitterness and resignation, and I want to know why.
When I put an inquiry in the WFS newsletter asking for feedback on this subject, I didn't know what kind of response to expect. As it turned out, I received only a few letters. I would like to think the reason for such a small response is that things are not as I suspected, that women are happier now and not thinking about leaving the job as they once did. I hope this is true for most, but I believe the reality is that some women are so worn down from their experiences that they can't even write about them for an article like this.
It isn't easy to write this. The letters I received were painful to read, full of loss and sorrow. Women who love the fire service, who gave everything to it, are planning to leave, to quit, to move on, and not really by choice.
So why write this article? Why not just let them go -- too bad for them, but let's get on with life, focus on the positive. Why should we, as individuals and as the fire service, care about these women?
We need to care because the loss of these women is our loss, too. They tell a story that echoes our own. Most of them have been on the job for more than ten years. Most of them have been promoted. On the surface, they are the picture of success. So when they leave, their departments are puzzled but maybe justify each departure as an isolated and individual decision, rather than seeing the pattern that emerges when one looks below the surface.
When I ask women why they want to leave, common themes quickly emerge. The strongest is the sense of isolation women still feel on the job. "I had no support group, no girlfriends. I was the only female firefighter in my region," said one. Another wrote, "Most of the guys were so mean I feared for my safety. [The other woman on the job] was as mean to me as the guys. In my twelve years in the fire service, I have found only three people that I will continue to have contact with after I quit completely: my husband, one male friend, and one female friend." Another commented, "I had to get a cat to find some companionship."
Harassment is another big issue. "My biggest and most recurring problem is harassment. Early on it was physical harassment, tampering with my turnout gear, threats to leave me in a fire, threats of physical harm, etc. Lately it has been subtle abuse that just goes on and on." Another described her life at work this way: "Much harassment throughout the time... my time cards always seemed to turn up missing, I was never (and am still not) given phone messages. My size was always challenged. Human feces were left in my shower. I began closing myself up in my room, and still spend much of my time there."
Women tell of the weariness they feel with having to prove themselves even after many years on the job. "I spent three years proving myself to the guys before some would actually admit that I was really there to be a firefighter and that I could do the job." Another said, "I am so tired of being a pioneer and leading a pristine life for no respect." A third simply noted, "I am the first and only woman on my department to be promoted to engineer and captain. I am the only woman to be a recruit instructor at the fire academy. I think some wear and tear comes with being first so many times."
Women preparing to leave the job speak of damage done, both psychologically and physically. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to repair my self-esteem," said one. Another spoke of the Combat Test as "an unparalleled emotional burden." Another wrote, "I have recently been experiencing panic/anxiety attacks while at work and in fires. My doctor states they have all been triggered by stress while being on the job, as well as from all the resentment, tricks, harassment and cruelty... Sort of a post-traumatic disorder."
The feeling among women who prepare to leave the fire service after a long career is one of sadness and some lingering hope. "I am thinking about leaving now because I finally realized how to say yes to myself... I have found there are places to work that are fun, where people don't harass you just because you are female or just because they feel superior to you." Another said, "Perhaps the most important issue leading to my departure is that I am ready to move on and do other things. I do not want to look back on my life and the only thing I can say about it is, I was a firefighter." Another wrote, "I feel good about myself when I look back on my career and the people I helped... I made a positive difference in so many lives; it is a great feeling. But looking at the huge amount of bad that came with the little amount of good, I honestly don't think I would choose the same career if I could go back and do it again."
So ultimately, why should we listen to these women? Why not just let them go? My feeling is that we must listen because they are telling our story too, and if we turn our backs on them, it is the same as turning against ourselves. The loss of these women is our loss, and a huge loss to the fire service.
There is another reason we should listen. We all know these women. They are our friends, our co-workers. They have succeeded. We may think everything is fine for them now. Yet for many, the pain of the job lingers so close below the surface. And one day, some decide it is enough.
I did a consulting job for a fire department recently and met the few women who were firefighters there. One had been on for over ten years. The department's officials told me how great she was. I saw her joking easily with her male co-workers. I saw her not making waves, being one of the guys, and getting positive reinforcement for that. She didn't draw attention to herself in my class, but afterward she came up to me and asked if I could call her some time. And when I did, she told me she was planning to quit.
This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of FireWork, the newsletter of Women in the Fire Service. It is copyright © 1996 Linda F. Willing and may not be reproduced without permission.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE