By Wendy Forest
Firefighters are often considered to be working class heroes and for good reasons . Like nurses, paramedics, public utilities workers and many other public sector workers whose work is absolutely essential and fundamental in any society, they are under attack on so many fronts. Fighting fires is a dangerous job.Occupational health and safety risks are very high and extremely serious. They have a shorter life expectancy and a higher rate of heart disease and cancer . As mentioned in a previous post they like all public sector workers are under attack . Hard to believe but true.
Imagining society without firefighters, paramedics, nurses and public utility workers is literally impossible.
There is an underbelly though to any discussion about firefighters as essential service public sector workers.
That is the exclusion of women from this male dominated occupation as well as the harrassment of and discrimination against those very few women who are admitted into this occupation.
Years ago I co-led groups for single moms on social assistance. These were women who wanted to find work and employment and ways and means to return to school. Part of the work we did was to have speakers from male dominated occupations come in to speak to them.
Many previous sessions we shared with the women focused on pay inequalities among female and male dominated occupations and one goal was to encourage them if they wanted to consider training and education for what were typically "mens' jobs" This thrust was not ideologically based but to help them learn concretely about the many aspects of their special oppression as low income women and to introduce them to the reality that many male dominated occupations , in trades and in the public sector were better paid, had better benefits and pensions. All of which as single moms they needed badly.
Most of the women up to this time had automatically imagined themselves in female dominated work. We had women workers from the construction trades come in to speak to them about their work, the obstacles they faced to gain entry to eduction/training and jobs and also the harrassment they faced on the job based on their gender.
One of the speakers was a woman firefighter. The stories she told about the harrassment and discrimination she faced everyday on the job from her male coworkers were hair raising. One story was about being trained to be on the hose. She pointed out that it took several firefighters to hold and manage a hose at a fire. Despite many incidents of sexual , verbal and psychological harrassment during her training , she nevertheless, as she said, was naive enough to never think that any of her male coworkers would actually abandon her or put her immediate physical safety and life at risk. Turns out she was wrong ! As she trustingly lined up with her male coworkers along the hose, the water was turned on and they dropped the hose and left her holding it alone. Needless to say she was thrown a distance and suffered serious physical injury- could have been killed- as her coworkers stood aside and watched. So much for solidarity when it comes to women among men.
Her male coworkers were disciplined of course but as she said nothing will ever make her forget the feeling of betrayal and fear .
The only upside if you could even call it that was that her eyes were opened in a way she could never before have imagined re the depth and extent of sexism in society. I remember her saying it made her see how it was actually dangerous to be a woman in the world in a way she had never before thought was possible.
She did not quit and went on in her union to become not just a firefighter but a fighter for the rights of women , not only to be able to enter male dominated professions but to be able to fully participate and be safe .
In the US today only 2% of fire fighters are women. In the UK 3.1%.
The first known firefighter in the US was a slave form New York named Molly Williams who was considered to be " as good a fire laddie as many of the boys." She fought fires in the early 1800s. Lillie Hitchcock was made an honourary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No 5 in San Francisco in 1863. In 1936 Emme Vernall became the first official woman firefighter in New Jersey .
There ares several examples in the US and the UK alone that point to the fact that women have been fighting fires for over 2 centuries in the US. Very few for sure and we need to ask why?
It was hard to find recent stats for free re the harrassment of women firefighters, based on gender, but statistics from 1995 reveal that 85% of women in fire services have experienced some form of sexual harrassment at some point in their either fire service careers or as volunteers. 70% said that harrassment was ongoing- not singular incidents and out of 551 women fore fighters interviewed , 339 who reported sexual harrassment , only 115 had positive outcomes. 26% said they were retaliated against for reporting their experiences.
This very brief snapshot of women workers and the very specific way in which they are oppressed, humiliated and abused , excluded and marginalized based only on gender is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the repeated failure of trade unionists and socialists everywhere to take the issue of women's oppression seriously and work to reveal it and fight against it in every aspect of our work our struggles. Millions of working and poor women everyday across the world are excluded and abused, marginalized, left to die and suffer simply because they are women.
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