JEFFERSONVILLE — Women make up only about 4 percent of the nation's firefighters, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. And local female firefighters face the same kind of underrepresentation in this area.
These gender disparities were the focus of the Vintage Fire Museum's "Women in the Fire Service" talk, which included guest speaker Maria Bucur, professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University, and a panel of four local female firefighters, to discuss the obstacles facing women in the profession. The program, along with the Jeffersonville museum's exhibit on the history of women firefighters, was supported by a grant from Indiana Humanities.
Bucur said while she has studied women's history for three decades, it is often difficult to find information on female firefighters — and there "is a reason for that," she said.
"This is a field in which women have been more underrepresented across time and space than it seems any other field," she said. "So I want to start by saluting all of the women [firefighters] here...without a doubt, you are leaders, you are trailblazers— pardon the pun — and you are powerful examples and potential role models for others."
She said firefighting ranks as an "extreme case" of the gender inequalities that took place in much of the Western world in the 19th century; most women were not allowed to practice the majority of professions established during that time by male-dominated groups.
Bucur said as firefighting became more professional, it also became almost exclusively male-dominated. Since the mid-1990s, the number of women firefighters has gone up by 1 percent she said. She pointed out several factors that could contribute to these disparities, including lesser interest in the profession for women.
Structural and cultural factors often play an important role in making these professions seem inhospitable to women, including gender stereotypes about the firefighting profession, according to Bucur. Since less than 5 percent of firefighters are women, young girls are unlikely to see many women firefighters. A "conscious and continuous" attempt by educators, firefighters and parents could help expose children to these alternate role models, she said, but oftentimes it's difficult to recruit other women.
Men are disproportionately able to advance through the ranks more than women, she said, and men might be less likely to view women firefighters as colleagues, which can affect the sense of solidarity. She emphasized the importance of male leadership to help the profession become more inclusive of women.
"Being able to put others above oneself, having the resolution to work through pain, overcoming fear, being empathetic [and] working as hard as it takes are all qualities that resonate with everyone who's been through the training," Bucur said. "None of these skills are exclusively to any one identity group. They are the best of what humans can achieve, and it's entirely in our interest to the community to try to support that for every person who wants to dedicate their lives to serving others in this fashion.
"What women can continue to do is to make themselves available as living examples of the extraordinary courage it takes to became and remain a firefighter and of the skills they bring to their team," she said.
Local female firefighters discussed their own experiences in the profession during the program. Sylvia Gardner was the first women hired as a firefighter in the department. She previously attained the rank of sergeant, and she has worked on the ambulance for about six years. Her uncle was a firefighter, and growing up, she didn't see any women on the back of the firetrucks.
"Teachers would come around and ask you what you wanted to be when you grow up, and I said I wanted to be a fireman," she said. "They said I couldn't be a fireman because women don't do that job...I turned 21, and New Albany was hiring, so I tried out for New Albany Fire Department. I made it, and I said, well, I'm going to follow in my uncle's footsteps."
Pam Blanchard, a captain on the Jeffersonville Fire Department, has been with the department for more than 25 years.
"My message is to any young female that wants to go out and be anything they want — don't let anybody discourage you, and if it's your dream, follow it and do the best you can and be the best at it, and it will work out for you," she said."
Andrea Belden has been a firefighter with the Lafayette Township Fire Department for about 21 years. While she is currently the only woman in the department, she feels that she is supported by her colleagues. She said she encourages women to become whatever they want to be.
"Nothing's going to stop you unless you stop yourself," Belden said.
Cynthia Starr, a retired Louisville firefighter, served for 15 years. She said there were no other women in the department when she was hired, and she was fired because she was not physically prepared for the job. She had a black belt in karate, and she thought she was tough, but she realized she had to go back to the gym to gain upper body strength, and eventually, she was rehired, along with two other women.
She said when she was a kid, she saw a fire truck go by, and all the boys she was playing with said they wanted to become firefighters when they grew up.
"I said, 'when I grow up, I want to be a firefighter,'" she recalled. "They said, 'oh no, girls can't be firefighters. They can be teachers or nurses or even a secretary, but you can't be a firefighter.' When I got older and I was in karate, I thought, this is just the natural step. I'm tough, and I can do this. I found out I wasn't, and boy, that was all the motivation I needed. They said you can't do that, so I did it."
Starr, who served as captain with the Louisville Fire Department, said women don't have to be "one of the guys" to be a firefighter.
"You've got to know in your heart that you're okay just as you are, and you can still do the job," she said. "You don't have to be one of the guys to fit in as a female firefighter."
Gardner also provided words of inspiration for girls and young women interested in fire service.
"I would like to go back and tell myself, no matter what your adversities are and your trials and tribulations you might see on the fire department ... just strive to be the best you can be, and never let anyone tear you down from being the person that you are," she said. "Remember that you come from greatness, so that makes you great."