“When I decided to make this profession my career I cried because at that point in time [early 1980s] every woman who got pregnant or got married left the profession. Then I had to deal personally with accepting that I also was gay. That was a whole other crying moment because it’s like, okay, I chose a profession over what society says you’ve got to have—family.”
With time, neither her career choice nor her sexuality has prevented this woman from having both a successful career as a firefighter and a family life with children. However, the personal torment of coming to terms with her career and sexuality, speaks volumes about the social pressures to which both women and men conform.
While women today no longer automatically choose or are forced to leave the firefighting profession when they become pregnant, the odds are still stacked against female firefighters who are also mothers. This relates both to the gendered structures of society, which conceal how gender roles are taken for granted, and the invisible patriarchal norms that shape organisational policy and practice.
To one national park ranger, women as a minority in firefighting is a simple gender equation:
“It’s mostly men because there are not enough of us because we’ve all had babies and then you go backwards. My husband, his life has hardly changed. So I still know my place as a woman at work and in the family!”
Despite the women’s liberation movement, affirmative action programs and equal opportunity policies having done much to carve out a role and place for women in professions such as firefighting, it is remarkable that the triple role of women (reproduction, production and community activism) is still seen as “women’s problem” today. This is clearly reflected in the perception voiced in the quote above of motherhood as “going backwards”, which is a prominent theme in the narratives shared by female firefighters in my research.
This correlation, however, is not straightforward. Rather, the firefighting mothers I interviewed can be seen as fitting in to three categories. For some women the notion of “going backwards” is purely perceived in a professional sense: an involuntary setback in career aspirations caused by mandatory training programs, arduous fitness tests or required hours on the fireline that are difficult (or often impossible) for mothers to fulfil when they are also the primary carers for their children.
For other women it is also a setback in self-esteem that can lead to unhappiness and resentment:
“I get really frustrated about the fact that I look around at the people that are attending these courses and doing these roles and I think, I could do it so much better than them. But because I can’t meet the time criteria now, I just feel completely deskilled. … I’m basically going to be in a holding pattern for about fifteen years.”
For some women, however, it is not so much a setback as a conscious choice to step back from some firefighting duties as their priorities change with pregnancy or after giving birth. This is, in part, due to a heightened sense of mortality with motherhood.
“My perspectives have really changed since I’ve had kids. When I first became pregnant I insisted that I could carry on doing my job. I went to fires when I was pregnant and I look back and I think, I was an idiot. But I was so full of, ‘This isn’t going to hold me back from doing my job. I can do anything and look, I can even have a baby. Look at me on the fire trail, pop it out, carry on!’ and now I look at my son and think if anything had happened I’d never have forgiven myself.”
The third and final group of mothers in my study is a group of women who have battled on with their careers regardless of the challenges imposed by motherhood, their heightened sense of mortality, testosterone-filled work environments, and societal pressure to fulfil perceived nurturing responsibilities. Their passion has resulted in battle scars that arguably provide more fuel to the fire that burns inside them:
“It’s cultural. It’s about people’s views about what women should do at certain times in their menstrual cycle or when they’re reproducing or when they’re breastfeeding. That presents challenges but not insurmountable ones. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Have you stopped doing the dangerous parts of your job since you became a mum?’ I’m like, ‘No, why would I?’ What message is that to give my daughters? Your life changes when you’re a mum but you don’t give up your dreams and your aspirations.”
“It was fairly intense trying to manage going away to fires, working incredible shifts and going home to two young children. [Christine: How did you manage?] Yeah, not well [laughter]. You do it but it was pretty exhausting and certainly my son was weaned as a result of me going to a fire. … There’s been plenty of times I’ve said I can’t go and put the family first. But I didn’t think of not having children because of the fire fighting side of things.”
All of the narratives firefighters have shared with me point to the definition of gender I gave in the first of this series of four blog posts – i.e. gender is a matter of social relations, which are the result of social structures with enduring or widespread patterns, rather than an expression of dichotomous biology. Gender arrangements within fire fighting agencies are reproduced socially (not biologically) by the power of structures to shape individual action, so they often appear unchanging.
It is important to reiterate that both women and men suffer from structural biases when it comes to decision-making processes, social constructions of gender, and gendered aspects of agencies that manage fire. Humorous talk often conceals the trials and tribulations that define the negotiation of gendered norms, gender relations and identities at home, at work and on the fireline. Laughter, rather than tears, abounds, as confidence, self-doubt, and competence are laid bare in the narratives firefighters share with me. This honesty is inspiring. I hope that in sharing some of these lessons in my book and in these blog posts the readers have been equally inspired.
This blog post is based on extracts from Chapter 7 of Christine’s book ‘Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty‘ as well as her presentation at the Women & Firefighting Australasia 2014 Conference on 15 Aug 2014.