As we continue to pay homage to women in the month of March, I am amazed each day of how much I am learning about the achievements of women both known and unknown. Women’s voices are being heard and speaking louder than ever in this United States. Laura Lorenzetti, senior editor at LinkedIn tells CNBC Make It “Women are gaining the skills and education needed to get in the door within specialized careers, and in many cases, they are gaining those skills at a greater rate than men.”
Women are not only breaking glass ceilings in the corporate and business world, but women are also making inroads at previously male-dominated fields, from sanitation workers, police officers to fire fighters! Yes, firefighters! And so, my featured story begins.
Most people would say that women are nurturers. Someone who protects others. Metaphorically speaking, women are used to putting out fires, whether with their children or even in the workplace. What I can proudly say is that women are now blazing the trails in the career of firefighting, literally!
On Mach 8, 2022, in Brooklyn, New York, the FDNY welcomed 291 probationary firefighters at a graduation ceremony, with 13 women in the class bringing the total number of female firefighters to 134 – the most in the department’s history. Hearing this announcement, my heart just lit up with joy, admiration, and pride for these women! Then I got to thinking about how many female firefighters are there in the United States. I pass by many firehouses, and I can say, all I have ever seen were men. I knew there were some women, but I hadn’t physically seen any.
What I didn’t know was that there is history of women in firefighting. In case you didn’t know, let’s take a quick look back in time.
History of Women in Firefighting
Women have been firefighters in the United States for longer than most people realize: in fact, for almost 200 years. It’s no surprise that many of the names of women firefighters in the 19th and early 20th centuries have simply been lost to the historical record. There are glimpses of individual women firefighters in New Jersey and Connecticut during those years. Between 1910 and 1920, women’s volunteer fire companies functioned in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California.
A mind-blowing fact I discovered during my research was that one of the first known woman firefighters in the United States was a Black woman named Molly Williams, who was a slave. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. A slave?
Around 1815, Williams became a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11. Williams was held as a slave belonging to a New York City merchant by the name of Benjamin Aymar who was affiliated with the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in lower Manhattan. During her time in the company, she was called Volunteer No. 11.
Female Firefighters of the 21st Century
Fast-forward to the 21st century, while the number of women is increasing, females still make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. fire service. According to the National Fire Protection Association, since the 80s the number of female firefighters has gone from about 1 percent to 6 percent nationwide. While there are more women, they still make up a miniscule amount of the overall fire force. Specifically, the study conducted by the NFPA said for 370,000 career firefighters only 15,200 were women, or just 4 percent.
History was made on March 3, 2022, at the Woodbridge, New Jersey Fire Department, when the department swore in its first three female professional firefighters. In the past, Woodbridge has had female volunteer firefighters, but these are the first paid, professional firefighters for the Township. Amazing!
Women are not only joining the fire department as firefighters, but they are also holding leadership positions within the department. Back in 2020, media coverage highlighted women assuming leadership positions within the FDNY, as well as filling rank and file roles. Here are just a few notable mentions.
- Joann Jacobs, a Black American of Queens, NY was the first of the 11 to be promoted to Fire Marshall in 1992.
- Ella McNair, of Brooklyn, NY, nearly 10 years later was the first Black American female to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
- Rochelle “Rocky” Jones, retired, was the first FDNY Battalion Chief promoted to the rank in 2003.
- Michele Fitzsimmons, in 2014 made history as the second woman and first lesbian ever to ascend to the rank of Battalion Chief. She is the highest-ranking woman in the New York City Fire Department.
- Tracey Lewis, in 2014, from Engine Co. 222 in Brooklyn, NY, became second Black woman promoted to lieutenant in FDNY history.
- Currently, in 2022, Laura Kavanagh is NYC’s Acting Fire Commissioner.
In 1978 in Washington, DC, Beatrice Rudder, a Black American, became the first woman firefighter for DC Fire and EMS. She retired as Deputy Fire Chief.
Also in DC, there are 41 Battalion Fire Chiefs and only two are women. Queen Anunay was promoted to the rank of Battalion Fire Chief in 2018 and Kishia Clemencia promoted in 2019. Both women who are Black Americans, are working together helping to change the face of the DC Fire and EMS Department.
Far Cry From the Days of “Firemen”
More than 6,500 women now hold career firefighting and fire officer’s positions in the United States. We are a far cry from days of “firemen.” Still, with women only making up 1.5% of the department, there is more work to be done according to the U.S. Fire Department Profile released by the National Fire Protection Association.
However, through their work, women firefighters are displaying a powerful message for the future generations; one that they hope will be filled with more women on the frontlines and in leadership. These women who have been successful publicly may inspire other women to consider the job for themselves. When more women join the field and succeed, it can have a lasting impact on what kind of worker is encouraged, and welcomed, to join certain professions.
At the FDNY graduation ceremony, Acting Fire Commissioner Kavanagh, who presided over the graduation, said, “Today, on International Women’s Day, having the honor to be the first female fire commissioner in the 157-year history of the FDNY.” She added that “with more women and people of color in each new class of firefighters, we continue to demonstrate that this job is available to every man and woman looking for a career of service as members of New York City’s Bravest.”
This career of service in firefighting doesn’t stop in New York City, but holds true for cities all over the United States!