Jenna started volunteering as a firefighter when she turned fourteen years old, the earliest age you are eligible to volunteer in the state of Connecticut. Her dream of fighting fires formed when she was twelve, when she watched in horror as her childhood crush’s house burnt to the ground. Her father suited up to respond with the fire department, while she sat there feeling helpless.
“That day I vowed that I wanted to help people, and I was going to do it by being a firefighter,” Jenna said.
Twelve years later, Jenna has fought fires in Connecticut, Michigan and now New Hampshire.
“I’m generally the only woman in the room,” Jenna said.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, only 4% of career firefighters are women and 11% of volunteer firefighters are women.
“As a female you have to prove yourself. You have to show you worth. I’m young, so people try to show me how to do things when I’ve been it doing it longer that most. ‘Oh let me carry those boxes for you.’ I can carry a 100 pound box just fine. I don’t think anyone means to be condescending, I think it is a force of habit. I think partially men have wives or sisters who ask them to do things like that.”
How long does a woman need to work in the field to prove herself? Twelve years, perhaps? Unfortunately, the credit doesn’t carry over state lines. When Jenna moved to New Hampshire and joined a new fire department, she didn’t mention her previous experience. She didn’t wear her resume stapled to her overalls. She showed up to the training in a humble silence.
“It’s always fun when someone doesn’t know what you’re capable of doing. We did a training called jaws of life where we cut cars apart. It was the first time everyone was there together. I just picked up the tool, which weighs maybe 50 pounds, and slung it over my shoulder. Everyone’s jaws dropped when I executed the cut perfectly. I turned around and I trained the girl who was new.”
Jenna’s whole philosophy of life is to “help the girl behind you. They are learning too.”
When Jenna was in engineering school as a freshman, she told her professor she wanted to become a CEO. His response was “women who become CEOs step on the women around them to get to the top.”
I was baffled by this story, imagining my own face being stomped on by a woman in high heels, after she elbowed me in the vagina and knocked me to ground where I would most easily be stepped on. All in the name of attaining that sweet, sweet desk job. This is not my experience working with women.
College Jenna was not outraged or deterred. Instead, she was confident in her values and said,
“Where I come from, we help people. We pull people out of burning buildings, we don’t step on people.“
According to the Center for American Progress’s report on The Women’s Leadership Gap, “women are just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. As recently as 2013, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had no women of color as board directors. Yet, women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988. They earn more than 57% of undergraduate degrees and 59% of all master’s degrees.”
Women are educated and qualified for management positions, so why is the gap so large?
According to an article by Hillary Smith on Whitmanwire, “When women engage in assertive behavior, they are seen as aggressive. When men assert themselves in their professional environments, they are labeled just that: assertive with a positive connotation.”
How do we break the stigma that in order for women to be in charge they have to be a bitch who steps on other women?
“You have to mentor,” Jenna said. “Pick the women who are not as represented or don’t have the resources men have. Teach them. Hire them. Train them. Tell them they can do it.”
Jenna worked as a full time engineer, and her office did not have a female bathroom. She started a petition to get a bathroom for women installed and succeeded.
“I didn’t care, but I thought some woman behind me might want privacy. Some women may not be as comfortable with this as I am. I didn’t do it for myself, I did it for the woman behind me.”
“I didn’t do it for myself. I did it for the woman behind me.”Jenna
Jenna’s experience as a woman in the fire community is mostly being in the company of supportive and inspiring men.
“The guys I work with are some of the best guys out there. They are genuine people, they’re coming with me in the middle of the night to pull you out of your burning house. The people standing beside me are people I trust. They probably haven’t seen the call you’ve seen, but they know the horrors, and they still show up to help, again and again.
The people that we help don’t thank us, but we still do it.
Generally, they’re at their worst. They’re not thinking about me, they are thinking about the worst day of their life. We still want to help them, and that’s enough,” Jenna said.
“That’s not to say I haven’t run into a rare asshole. One time a man said women shouldn’t be in fire. The men around me tore him down, instantly arguing to prove him wrong. I didn’t have to say a word.”
They call it the brotherhood.
“It’s a horribly patriarchal word,” Jenna laughed. “But I am 100% a part of it. I’ve been indoctrinated, I don’t get a lot of discrimination.”
The brotherhood can be a patriarchal word, and it can be a word that represents a fellowship of people who protect each other. They are coworkers who go to a job they might not return from. The nature of fighting fires is dangerous.
“There’s so much in the world that can be debated. We can spend a lot of energy on words that don’t have a lot of impact,” Jenna said.
She told me the story of when she was fifteen years old a female firefighter told her, “I’m a fireman. I don’t care that it has the word man in it. I have earned the title.”
She helped Jenna recognize that women and men were doing the same job.
“Why should we have a separate title when we earned the same job? It’s just a word at the end of the day and there’s something to be said about earning it. I don’t want to belittle what women are working toward. If a woman wants to call herself firewoman, I don’t care.”
Jenna laughed as she explained that when she puts all of her fire gear on, she appears genderless. The uniform is exactly that: uniform. Whether you identify as a woman, as a man, as a transgender human, or as a Christian, Pagan or vegan: you look like a firefighter when you are in uniform.
“What progress do you want to see in the outdoors community of women?” I asked.
“I wish women would feel comfortable hiking alone and traveling alone. I wish we lived in a world where you don’t have to look over your shoulder and worry about violence. I wish I could go backpacking without thinking of a man finding me at night and breaking into my tent to hurt me. I wish I didn’t feel the need to hide my tent far away from a group shelter,” she said.
“How do we change this?” I asked. “How do we make society feel safe for women?”
“We need to change what we tell our children and friends,” she said. “I have lived alone for seven years. My boss and my mom have said many times: Aren’t you afraid? And I wonder, of what?”
Jenna went on to explain how unlikely it is that someone would come into her home and want to rape, steal, or kill her just because she lived alone. Yet society’s perception of a woman alone is that she is in danger. Jenna argued that it was more likely to be assaulted by someone you know, then a random act of violence from a stranger in her own secure home.
According to statistics by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, “8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.”
Can you imagine a world where a woman goes on a date and someone asks, “But aren’t you afraid?”
Can you imagine a world where a woman gets married and someone asks, “But aren’t you afraid?”
Can you imagine a world where a teen is asked to prom and someone asks, “But aren’t you afraid?”
Can you imagine a girl being dropped off at her uncle’s house and someone asks, “But aren’t you afraid?”
Can you imagine a world where a woman moves in with a male roommate and someone asks, “But aren’t you afraid?”
We do not live in a world where women are asked if they are afraid of the men they know.
We live in a world where women are told they are not safe to walk home at night, they are not safe to go into the wilderness, they are not safe in their own home if no one else is there.
Jenna believes we need to change our language, and change the stories we tell our children and friends. “The world is layered down with all the bad things that happen. You don’t often see the good. We need to balance it out. We need optimism. There’s more good people in the world then bad. I like to think that the world is changing,” she said.
“What do you think the world needs more of?” I asked Jenna.
“More volunteers. More people who are willing to give a little of themselves to do something good. I think we all have the capacity to do good. But people need to want to do something good for the world.”
Jenna shared her favorite quote with me:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”Fred Rogers
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In the spirit of Jenna’s optimism, I have included resources that point to the women who are actively helping the girls behind them:
Here’s a list of 18 books about female empowerment.
Read this article by Shelley Zalias, published in Forbes, about the power of women supporting each other. “I always say a woman alone has power; collectively we have impact.”
Girls need mentorship from other women. Here are some opportunities to become a mentor:
Get involved with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Of America program. Chapters available nationwide.
Strong Women, Strong Girls offers mentorship programs in Boston and Pittsburg for girls, college women, and professional women.
Ways to get involved with StepUp– a mentorship program that “propels girls living or going to school in under-resourced communities to fulfill their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound, career-focused, and ready to join the next generation of professional women.” There are chapters in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York.