“I know you can GET the job, but can you DO the job?”

At my new job I’m working with some former military people, some of them very traditional and conservative. The suitability of women in non-traditional roles, such as the military, has come up a few times, and it’s been a little jarring to hear these staunchly conservative people stating firmly that women have no place in the service.

As a former firefighter, I’d like to think that I worked hard and performed the work necessary to fight fires and help keep my fellow firefighters safe. I joined the fire department because I wanted to help members of my community, not necessarily to prove that I could ‘do anything a man can do.’

In the non-traditional employment fields, there seem to be two schools of thought: Anti-women and pro-women. Those who are anti-women staunchly state that females cannot do the same work as men, and therefore no female will never have any business even trying.

Conversely it seems like the pro-women faction insist that women, all women, can do anything men can do, and insist on the opportunity to try it–along with modified standards for the same work.

In my opinion, neither of these factions is correct. Fundamentally speaking there are tremendous physiological differences between the two sexes, which result in radically different capabilities. I believe that women can do a heckuva lot more than they themselves and many men give them credit for. But to categorically insist that women can do everything men can do is untrue.

You may notice that I carefully avoided using the word “feminist” during the first part of this note. That is because I don’t believe the argument about whether women can work alongside men in non-traditional fields like military service and law enforcement and firefighting is truly about the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. And political, economic and social equality is really what feminism means.

Feminism doesn’t mean that any woman who wants to can become a firefighter–it means that all women should have the opportunity to to try to become a firefighter, which is the same opportunity that men have. If at any point a woman (or a man) who wants to be a firefighter is unable to perform all the required duties of that role, then they should go home, have a hot bath and move on to their next challenge.

Maybe it’s more accurate to use the word “feminist” to describe those who fight for the right to challenge and ultimately prove themselves in a non-traditional field, like I did in 1989 on my hometown fire department. My motivation to serve on the fire department was wholly and truly to be helpful and capable in the face of tragedy. If I found that I couldn’t perform all the functions that I was supposed to as a firefighter, I would have bowed out and gone home–because I would have become a liability to the department, rather than an asset. And my participation on the fire service should always be about helping, making a good difference, and contributing positively, rather than about me.

Back in 1989 (as in 1997 when I joined the Highland Township Fire Department), I was able to perform all the duties of a functional volunteer firefighter. In the testing for both the Rogers City Fire Department and the Highland Township Fire Department, I passed the same physical agility testing as did the other men and women who were accepted into the departments. Females had to drag the rescue dummies the same distance as the males, and every single body had to lug a high-rise hose pack up a full flight of stairs in full turnout gear with SCBA in 90-degree weather.

Everybody had to do it successfully. If you couldn’t perform the physical agility testing, you couldn’t be a firefighter.

And that’s the way it should be. In my opinion, there should be one set of standards, one performance benchmark that everybody needs to meet in order to be a [whatever]. If you can’t do [x], you can’t be a [whatever].

Back in 1989, I was also working as a newspaper reporter.  The volunteer firefighting gig was a free-time thing, in between Jaycees and serving in a few other community-service capacities. Yes, I was considerably younger and much more energetic back then. Shut up.

Anyway. A fellow reporter from another local newsmedia found out that I carried my turnout gear in the hatchback of my ’86 Mustang. She was thrilled and wanted to interview me as a female firefighter, the first one ever in my hometown. I was a vanguard, a ground breaker, like Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

I was horrified at the thought. I didn’t WANT to be the story, I just wanted to be part of the cavalry that was part of the story, if that. I refused and she was befuddled why I wouldn’t allow myself to be put in the spotlight. I couldn’t even articulate why myself, until several years afterward.

Several years after that, I could explain that I didn’t want congratulations for doing something so ‘challenging’ to a woman, because I would rather people saw a woman taking on a challenge as a natural and accepted occurrence rather than an exceptional phenomenon. I would rather that women everywhere could become electrical linemen, or a snipers, or firefighters, without having to endure speculation that they’re ‘hunting for a husband’ or ‘a closeted dyke’ or ‘just trying to prove something.’

I think that one should be allowed to do/work/perform/create whatever one wants, as long as one can fully perform that work up to the safe and accepted standards. If I had a daughter who wanted to be an astronaut, I’d explain that the training is astonishingly rigorous and that if she wanted to be accepted into the program, she’d best get ready to work her bottom off. If I had a son who loved designing Barbie clothes, I’d encourage him to go to design school and develop his eye for fashion, and not to give up in the face of disapproval from general society.

But if my son turns out to be a crappy Barbie clothing designer, it’s no big deal.  No one dies if he makes shoddy or unimaginative Barbie clothes. On the other hand, if my daughter cheats her way through all her math classes and gains promotions by sleeping with her superiors, then she puts other peoples’ lives at stake by not honestly working to be the best astronaut she possibly can.

One of my coworkers talked about being in the service with women. “They can’t handle it, when it comes right down to it, they’re just not ready for the fighting and hard work,” he said. “Some of them weren’t any better than prostitutes.” Another coworker talked about her husband’s experiences with women who couldn’t perform the same tasks as men, and how she worried that they might endanger her husband when they were distracted by hormonal fluctuations and fretting about hair and makeup.

My heart hurt when I heard what they had to say, and I felt that they were thinking of me personally the same way. I understand that they had bad experiences with women in non-traditional roles. I know that not every person is a good person, and that there are women (and men!) in the world who will do the wrong thing and be bad people and not work hard. But that doesn’t apply to me, and it doesn’t apply to everybody in a non-traditional field.

I tried not to let myself be painted with that brush, but I don’t think I stood back far enough.

When I meet a person, I meet an individual, not a stereotype. I don’t meet a housewife, or a postal worker, or a florist. I meet people who happen to do those jobs, individuals with their own strengths and beliefs and personalities. I wish other people would think the same way.

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