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Women in the Fire Department

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The Seattle Fire Department has grown through the years to accommodate Seattle's expansion, both in population and in size. The Department historically has been close-knit, proud of the loyalty of its members. From its early days as a volunteer unit to its founding after the Great Fire of 1889, its roots were as a social and fraternal organization. Gaining members from the armed services, the fire fighting unit developed a strong male culture by the mid-twentieth century, to the point where the public relations unit described the firefighter as "a man among men." The story of the women who changed the image of female firefighters from the unusual to the usual is one of courage, hard work, and perseverance.

On a national level, women were active firefighters as far back as the 1800s, but the positions were voluntary and primarily in rural, semi-urban and private fire departments. A trainee program for minorities was established in 1969, but women were not a focus until 1975. Six were admitted to the 1976 recruit class; none of them were successful, although a lawsuit later proved that the required medical exam was discriminatory, holding women to different standards than men and giving misleading diagnoses.

Barbara (Bonnie) Beers was the first woman to successfully complete recruit training, joining the department in 1977. She cited the physical rigor, as well as the monetary benefits and sense of personal accomplishment, as her challenges and rewards. The psychological burden of being the first woman in the department was heavy, with many of her male coworkers (and members of the public) making it clear they did not believe she belonged there.

Other women followed Beers into fire fighting careers. By the late 1980s the Seattle Fire Department was considered a national model for the recruitment, hiring and retention of women as firefighters, providing assistance to other fire service organizations across the nation. Ten years after the first woman firefighter was hired, the Department had 54 women firefighters. Discriminatory practices did not disappear, however. In 1987, two firefighters filed a lawsuit to force the relief association to provide disability benefits to pregnant firefighters as they did to other firefighters with temporary disabilities. As a result of the suit, the Department began offering light duty work to all firefighters who were temporarily disabled, improving working conditions for everyone.

An encouraging development within the Department was the promotion of several women firefighters. Bonnie Beers was the first to be promoted to Lieutenant, and Molly Douce the first to become Captain and Battalion Chief. Other women worked their way up the ranks to positions of greater authority and responsibility.

The high numbers of women entering the Department in the 1970s and 1980s were thinning out by the 1990s, however, and numbers of women entering were not as great. In 1998, Initiative 200 was passed in the state of Washington, banning ethnic and gender preferences in hiring; subsequently, the percentage of women recruits declined further. Discrimination charges had not run their course, either. In 1993, the City settled a sexual harassment suit with a female firefighter who had been on the force since 1983. Of 49 female firefighters who responded to a 1993 survey, 24 said they experienced some degree of sexual harassment.

Women had shown from 1975 through 2008 that one factor remained equal between the sexes, and that was motivation. It was no longer a question of whether or not women could do the job. As of 2008, 93 of the 1,038 firefighters in Seattle were women, close to 9% and much higher than the national average. Women were working in all areas of the Fire Department, as paramedics, dispatchers, and fire marshal inspectors, as well as firefighters. In 2009, Susan Rosenthal, who first joined the Seattle Fire Department in 1980, became the Department's first woman assistant chief and the department's highest-ranking woman.



WWHC logo This digital document library was sponsored in part by the Washington Women's History Consortium, a part of the Washington State Historical Society.