By Linda F. Willing – It happened again the other day.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop with a group of people, some of whom I have just met for the first time. Small talk about work leads to my friend mentioning that I used to be a career firefighter.
At this point, the conversation screeches to a halt and I am faced with mostly incredulous stares from the group. One woman, a new acquaintance says, “But you’re so small! How did you ever pass the physical tests?”
“Very well, thank you,” I say in a joking tone, hoping to steer a course back into calmer waters.
It was not to be. A man, also a new acquaintance, says in an almost taunting tone, “Could you carry me out of here in a fireman’s carry right now?”
Seriously? A fireman’s carry? I try to make light of it as I tell him that carrying people out of burning buildings while slung over your shoulder is TV stuff – real fires are hot and dark and everything takes place in the first 18” above floor level. But yes, I could get him out if need be.
He is not convinced. The other woman speaks up again, “But what about pulling the hoses? I mean, the water comes out at something like 200 miles per hour.”
I tell her that I was a firefighter for over 18 years, and was able to do the job. She comments that her husband is a retired LA cop, and then says, “Well, I guess anyone can be a cop or a fireman these days, since they lowered the standards.”
At this point I go mute. I would leave but for my friend, who is giving me a ride home. Another person in the group finally redirects the conversation, perhaps sensing awkwardness. But I have turned to stone. I do not say another word until I thankfully get up and leave a short time later.
I don’t respond directly to this ignorance for two reasons. The first is civility. I was invited to tag along with this group. I felt like a guest. The other reason was that I knew arguing would do no good. And frankly, after over 30 years, I am exhausted with defending myself in this way.
Here’s the part that is most amazing about this type of encounter, which is all too common for women in nontraditional fields. It was the sheer rudeness of the comments that most affected me. Imagine meeting someone for the first time and commenting, “Well, I have to say, you just don’t seem smart enough to have been a teacher.” Or, “Aren’t you too fat to be a credible football coach?” No one would ever say such things to anyone in polite company, even if they were privately thinking them.
And these people were polite, at least by their own definition. They were from the South, where politeness is a code of honor. Yet they felt perfectly justified in denigrating my work history, my very identity in this way. They did not think twice about their right to say what they did.
I look forward to the day when I can talk about my career in the emergency services the same way as any man does. But I honestly don’t see that happening any time soon.
Years ago, I wrote a series of articles about why women firefighters leave the job. One common theme came through clearly – sheer exhaustion with constantly explaining and defending oneself not just at work, but in the general population as well. I’ve been away from the job now over a decade and you’d think that would have changed. But it hasn’t.
I remember one criticism that was frequently aimed at me and other women firefighters back in the early days – that we were “too defensive.” But it only follows that people seem defensive when they are forced to constantly defend themselves to others.
I look forward to the day when a woman can say that she does any job and the conversation will just go on normally. I look forward to women being included as credible characters in films about the fire service. I look forward to the day when I can talk about my career in the emergency services the same way as any man does. But I honestly don’t see that happening any time soon. Until then, I avoid the topic. I hide out, just as I did when I first came on the job. It’s just easier that way. And something dies every time I do it.
About The Contributor
Linda F. Willing is a retired fire officer with the Boulder, Colorado Fire Department, and is currently the principal trainer and consultant with RealWorld Training & Consulting. Linda is also an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Southern University in the College of Business and has been an adjunct faculty member with the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer and Management Science programs since 1999.
Linda was a co-founder of the international organization Women in the Fire Service. She is the author of the book On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories, and is also a monthly columnist for FireRescue1 and Fire Chief magazines.