Female Firefighters: Why Aren’t There More of You?

Female firefighters

In the summer of 2019, Michelle Woolverton and Christi Shibata were sworn in as the University of Notre Dame fire department’s first-ever full-time female firefighters. Woolverton and Shibata are the first full-timers since the department was established over 140 years ago. Great news, of course, but some of the reaction to this news online got me thinking about the vital role that female firefighters play in public safety. 

‘Well, it’s the same role that male firefighters play!’ I hear you cry. 

You’re not wrong. But the more I looked into this topic, the more interesting facts and figures I discovered about these under-represented members of the emergency management and response community. Perhaps more importantly, it got me thinking about why there aren’t more, especially considering the rather exciting history of female firefighting firsts…

A short history of female firefighting firsts

As with so many historical issues, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was the first female firefighter (definitions make that complicated, too!) but there are some famous female firefighters who come up in most of the literature:

  • Early 1800s: Molly Williams, New York
  • 1820s: Marina Betts, Pittsburgh
  • 1860s: Lillie Hitchcock, San Francisco

By the 1910s, volunteer fire departments in California and Maryland admitted women, and of course when World War I came around, many women stepped into the shoes of many historically-male roles, including firefighting. The same was true in World War II. By the 1960s, then, it is perhaps not so surprising that all-female firefighting groups were springing up around the country.

As for fire chiefs, the first known female chief was Ruth E. Capello. Born in 1922, Capello became fire chief of the Butte Falls department in Butte Falls, Oregon, in 1973. The 1970s saw the first paid female firefighters, too, with Sandra Forcier serving as a Public Safety Officer (combining police and fire roles) in 1973 and Judith Livers being the first fire-only officer in 1974.

Things really started to change, however, with Brenda Berkman, who – in 1982 – saw discrimination in a physical test used by the New York City Fire Department, and won a legal case proving the same. 

Since Berkman’s efforts, a host of female fire fighting firsts arose, from Rosemary Bliss of Tiburon, California, becoming the first female career fire chief in 1993 to Regina Wilson becoming the first female president of the Vulcan Society (a.k.a. African-American Firefighters Association) in 2015!

What an impressive bunch! 

PS: If you’ve got kids, or indeed if you like reading children’s books (I’m not judging!) then you should definitely check out this fantastic little book on Molly Williams, widely considered to be America’s first female firefighter! 

Female firefighter statistics

Before you read ahead, how many female firefighters do you think there are now in the US? The number might shock you…

According to the National Fire Protection Association, only 7% of the approximately 1.16 million firefighters in the United States are women. Those figures are from 2017, and I for one sincerely hope they’re higher two years on. When considering career (i.e. full-time) firefighters, only 4% are women.

So, where next for female firefighters?

It really does surprise me that there are so few female firefighters in the US today. And I’m sure the problem is not just related to the US. There are low rates of female firefighting in countries the world over, and that should be a concern for all of us, no matter where we are. 

But I want to know what you all think. What’s preventing the firefighting profession from representing the people whom it serves? Why aren’t there more female firefighters, and what should we be doing about it? 

Let me know in the comments!

Camilla Barker-DeStefano

Camilla Barker-DeStefano

Dr. Camilla Barker-DeStefano (Oxon) is a disaster lawyer, author, and founder of the Crisis Academy.

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