Women in Firefighting: A Brief History
Women have been firefighters for longer than most people realize: in fact, for almost 200 years. The first woman firefighter we know of was Molly Williams, who was a slave in New York City and became a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11 in about 1815.
One woman whose name is sometimes mentioned as an early female firefighter is the San Francisco heiress, Lillie Hitchcock Coit. She became an honorary member of Knickerbocker Engine Company #5 as a teenager in 1859, after helping them drag the engine to a fire on Telegraph Hill.
No doubt many of the names of women firefighters in the 19th and early 20th centuries have simply been lost to the historical record, but we do see glimpses of individual women firefighters in New Jersey and Connecticut during those years. Girton Ladies’ College in Great Britain had an all-women’s fire brigade from 1878 until 1932. Between 1910 and 1920, women’s volunteer fire companies functioned in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California.
In the late 1920’s, Emma Vernell became a member of Westside Hose Company #1 at the age of 50, after her firefighter husband died in the line of duty. She was the first woman officially recognized as a firefighter by the State of New Jersey. A decade later, also in New Jersey, a woman named Augusta Chasans became a volunteer firefighter.
During World War II, many women across the country entered the volunteer fire service to take the place of men who had been called into the military. Two military fire departments in Illinois were staffed entirely by women for part of the war.
All-women fire companies developed in King County, California, and Woodbine, Texas, in the 1960’s. By the 1970’s, it was becoming slightly more common for women to join the ranks of regular volunteer fire departments and work side by side with their male peers, and the institution of the all-women company began to fade away.
Women in the Wildland Fire Service
The first all-woman forest firefighting crew in California was assembled in 1942. Employed by the California Department of Forestry, the crew consisted of a foreman, a truck driver, an assistant driver, firefighters, and a cook.
The first women in the postwar period known to have been paid for fire suppression work were wildland firefighting crews working for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). An all-women BLM crew worked on fires in Alaska during the summer of 1971, and a crew of USFS women worked that year and the following year in Montana.
Early Female Career Firefighters
In Great Britain, during World War II, many women were active in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz, both on a part-time and full-time basis. While most were assigned to non-suppression roles, some worked as pump operators and firefighters. More than two dozen women in the AFS died in the line of duty during the war.
1973 and 1974 marked the entry of two women into fire suppression roles on a paid basis: the first women we know of to be paid for fighting fires in an urban setting. Sandra Forcier was hired as a Public Safety Officer (a combination police officer and firefighter) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in July of 1973. The following March, Judith Livers was hired by the Arlington County, Virginia, Fire Department, the first woman in the world to become a career firefighter. Both women served full careers with their departments and retired at the rank of battalion chief.
By the mid-1970’s, women were becoming career firefighters here and there throughout the country. Among there were a number of African-American women, including Genois Wilson in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1975 and Toni McIntosh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1976.
More than 6,500 women now hold career firefighting and fire officer’s positions in the United States, with hundreds of counterparts in Canada, Great Britain, and other countries throughout the world. Among the volunteer and paid-on-call fire and EMS forces in the United States are perhaps 30-40,000 women firefighters, and thousands more EMT’s and paramedics. The history of these women and their foremothers is long and proud, and continues to be written.
Copyright © 2007 Terese M. Floren. Used here by permission; may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.