I’m a volunteer firefighter in my county, and a woman. Yesterday, I was in training to learn how to decontaminate people and hazmat technicians after they’ve been in a “hot” zone. Part of the process includes getting suited up in a chemical suit which has to be taped up around the firefighter’s respirator mask, the wrists, boot tops, and down the zipper seam along the front of the body. The exercise, no doubt simulating the real situation, was noisy, hurried, and hectic. So the captain who was taping me up had to tell me twice that I needed to smooth down the tape in front of my body myself. At the time, I assumed it was because he had to get to another firefighter quickly. But later I found out he was scared. Not of chemicals that could cause prolonged physical suffering. Not of getting trapped in a fiery inferno and asphyxiating. He was scared of me accusing him unjustly of molestation for running a hand (vertically) over my chest.
I haven’t joined me #metoo chorus, though I, too, could tell stories of men behaving badly and crudely. I much prefer this mythical past I have read about and seen in classic movies where women slap or throw a drink at the cad. But my upbringing, in more enlightened, less sexist times, made me think I’d be up for assault, just as a man doing that to me would be. I have slapped a man once in my life — a then (now ex, of course) boyfriend who told a homeless person on the street with $20 in his lap to buy me. And then I stormed off. It was New York City in the 80s, so the cop who took his complaint might have slapped him, too. That’s it, for my violent inclinations, though — ever since then, when some guy goes douchebro on me, I grumble quietly and, if possible, storm away.
With #metoo mass shaming and promises of more federal oversight, it may feel empowering to come together as women to punish the whole of men for the sins of the few, but this has its consequences. Behind the celebrations, there are gentlemen watching and unhappy at being unfairly grouped in with the cads.
Last year, I was appalled to find out fellow women professionals were skipping work, or at least wearing red, in the US, in commoration of the communist holiday Women’s Day. It wasn’t that long ago, if fact it was just in my mother’s generation, that women were fighting to be respected and asking to be treated equally in the workplace, and to no longer be relegated to staying at home. Did these women not care for their careers? Did they not realize that when they refused to do their work for a day, it still needed to be done — and was likely to be done for them by a man? The stressed manager who had to juggle responsibilities, whether male or female, may certainly take this into account the next time a hiring opportunity comes up — and hire a man who won’t capriciously decide to celebrate communist holidays on a social whim. And for what it’s worth, I went to school in the Soviet Union, and women didn’t take that day off.
It’s tough being a female firefighter, but it has nothing to do with the men I work with. I’m held to the same expectations and have the same training. There’s no double standards when it comes to what I need to do physically — because the fire or the disaster doesn’t decide to be easier based on who shows up. But it takes me a whole lot longer to break down the door than it does for the 6 foot tall, 20-something man who bench presses 300 pounds as his workout warmup. Firefighting inspires me to work out harder, but we all know (even though the men are afraid to say it out loud) that if someone’s going to haul you out of a burning building, it’s not going to be me.
But I can do a lot of other important things — like scrub down hazmat technicians after they’ve mitigated a dangerous chemical spill. But as I noted in my opening, the Church of Perpetually Offended Womankind is making it harder for me to do that. My husband (who was in the team suiting up as technicians) overheard the captain being anxious about even putting the tape on me. But how could he not be, when even an offhand complaint from me would end him, not just in this role, but in any career in the future? To preserve everyone’s safety, we could dictate only women can aid other women — which would have left the team short by one person because I was the only woman. We could dictate only spouses could tape up women, which only lets women participate in firefighting activities if their partner is present. Or we could go all old school and make firefighting all-male again. Or, hey, we could go crazy, and make firefighting all women, and then wonder why it’s so hard to staff stations and fires take even longer to fight. All of these are stupid options, short of what I wish we could go back to doing as a society — and chill out.
I repeat feminist history, but it wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t hired in many firms, on the basis that men and women can’t work together. So if women start having a hard time with male colleagues, for doing things they can do with male colleagues, it supports that point of view. No amount of lawsuits or regulations can make a manager hire someone he or she is afraid to work with, or who will destroy the cohesiveness of a team. Complain too hard, too often, and about things that aren’t really that bad, and instead of building opportunities for women, we may just see them fade away.
#metoo #feminism #firefighting #womanfirefighter