Women Fire Fighters
Councilmember Jeanette Williams was a champion of women's rights and the rights of gays and lesbians throughout her 20-year tenure on Seattle City Council. At a Seattle City Council budget meeting on April 29, 1977, she argued for more accountability in recruiting women into the Seattle Fire Department. Responding to a 1974 affirmative action report, the Seattle Fire Department began recruiting women firefighters in 1975. Although 125 women took the written exam that first year, only six were admitted to the class in March 1976. Of these, five resigned, citing lack of upper body strength as the reason. The sixth, Lori Lakshas, was dismissed and subsequently filed a discrimination charge. Fighting against discriminatory attitudes, Williams remained focused on her effort to get women in the Fire Department. A pre-recruit training program was developed in 1977, resulting in the first woman firefighter, Barbara Beers, entering the department in a combat company in January 1978. The budget meeting here pre-dates the creation of the pre-recruit program.
Listen to an excerpt here:
Budget Meeting, April 29, 1977
Councilmember Williams: As I said before, I think it's important to fix the responsibility where it properly belongs and see that this works.
Councilmember Wayne Larkin: Realistically, the problem, instead of looking at it with visions of grandeur the way City Council and everyone in City Hall has been looking at women in the Fire Department, is that you're not going to find combat fire fighters in women in a fire department. And it's absolutely ridiculous. You work team and team work in the fire department and your very life depends on whether or not that team member is strong enough to pull you out of a bad situation in case you're overcome by smoke, or if a wall comes down, or a beam comes down. And it's actually foolhardy to think that you're going to put women in combat in the Seattle Fire Department. Now if you want women in the Seattle Fire Department in Seattle... I talked my daughter into taking this examination and she passed it. And she's an all-American girl. I'll tell you, she's a well-built girl that can handle more weight and more physical effort than most women can handle. She went up the 100-foot aerial, she packed a ladder across the apparatus floor, she did everything and then she collapsed when she had to carry that hose up the stairway. And in talking with her, she said, "Dad, all I wanted get in there for was to go with paramedics." She is a graduate of three hospitals, and the bird machine, inhalation therapy, trained, very good. Now why don't you have a special classification in the Fire Department so they can get into the Fire Department and do those non-combat jobs, instead of looking at women in combat, because you're not going to get women in combat. Maybe one gal you're going to find that can cope with that, and I'd like to see what she looks like. [laughter]
Councilmember Williams: Well, Wayne, you may have a lot of fun with this but...
Councilmember Wayne Larkin: I'm not having fun with it, I'm being realistic.
Councilmember Williams: Well, so am I, and that's why we're talking about the pre-recruit training. Because this is where you either have the candidates for these positions or you don't. And that's why the Council got committed to it. And I don't think it's necessary to get excited about it, I think it's necessary to look realistically at what can be achieved.
The entire event can be heard here.
Citation: Budget Committee Meeting, April 29, 1977. Event ID 4031, Seattle City Council Legislative Department Audio Recordings (Record Series 4601-03).