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Women in City Government

Strength and Stamina: Women in the Fire Department

The Parks Department was reluctant to hire female lifeguards during World War II for summer duty in the parks, arguing that they were not strong enough. Strength and stamina were also issues for women 30 years later in the Fire Department. The Fire Department was ordered to hire women in 1975 by Mayor Wes Uhlman and the City Council. The Fire Department developed a training program in conjunction with University of Washington kinesiologist T. Lee Doolittle in 1976 but it was dropped a year later due to budget cuts. Doolittle stated that only 8% of females would be able to attain the necessary upper-body strength to be successful firefighters.

Firefighter Academy
Firefighter Academy

The first female firefighter for the Seattle Fire Department was Barbara (Bonnie) Beers. A member of the University of Washington basketball team, Beers was described by one of her teammates, Molly Martin, as "the strongest person on the team." Beers took a year off the team to train for the entrance test. She completed her recruit training in 1977. She was promoted to Lieutenant in 1981, Captain in 1992 and Battalion Chief in 1996.

Beers paid a price for paving the way for other women. In a 2002 interview with the Seattle Times, Beers said, "I had to pay for it dearly. There were people who said, 'You're taking someone else's job,' and you have to show them you can do it . . . People hated me, but it's one of the prices you have to pay."

Bonnie Beers
Bonnie Beers

By 1982, Seattle had 27 women firefighters, more than any other city in the nation. High morale did not necessarily accompany the high numbers, however, and some men in the department resented the presence of women. The number of women firefighters increased to 69 by 1993, or 7% of the total force. In that year, a survey of women fire fighters was conducted by the department. Women's concerns ranged from nuts and bolts issues like the desire for changing rooms and protective clothing that fit them better (and improved their safety) to sexual harassment.

The survey questions were written by Fire Captain Katherine M. Maughan, who later conducted one-on-one interviews with the women. Of the 47 respondents, half said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. At least 3/4 of women responding said that they sometimes felt restricted in their battalion assignments. Over half said they did not work with other women on a regular basis. The majority of women in the department (60%) said they were recruited by family or friends in the department.

In 1994, Seattle's Public Safety Committee, chaired by Margaret Pageler, and the Fire Department met to address the concerns raised in the questionnaire. The resulting work plan included increased recruitment activity, department-wide training on sexual harassment, a schedule for upgrading facilities to accommodate women, and ensuring that fire fighting protective clothing to fit women was available within 30 days.

In 1999, the Seattle Women's Commission conducted a longer survey that incorporated the 1993 questions. In the time that elapsed between the two surveys, more women felt that Recruit School prepared them better for their job. Clothing and facilities improved. In general, women starting out in 1999 seemed better prepared for what lay ahead of them. But there was an increase in the number of women reporting harassment in the 1999 survey. In both surveys, women said their supervisors "set the tone" for how harassment was tolerated. Non-traditional hours were more of a concern in the 1999 survey than 1993.

Of women surveyed in 1999, 87% felt they approached the job differently than men: as one respondent put it, with women it's "more about brains than brawn." Brawniness, however, is an acknowledged requirement and 28% of the respondents in 1999 said the physical demands of the job was one of the top reasons there were few women in department. The main reason (at 30%) given for low numbers was poor recruitment and lack of information about the job among women who might otherwise be interested.

In 1998, I-200 was passed in the state of Washington. This initiative banned ethnic and gender preferences in hiring. Despite I-200, as of 2002, 9% percent of firefighters in the Seattle Fire Department were women; more than the 8% Doolittle predicted. They serve in all divisions as paramedics, dispatchers, fire marshal inspectors, and firefighters. Today, women are represented at many levels in the Fire Department: Lieutenants, Captains, Battalion Chiefs and Deputy Chief.

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