Anything a man can do, a woman can probably do it better, probably. Although women have made incredible advancements since the Civil Rights Movement and white feminist movement, Black women are still making history, pioneering paths and battling limiting stereotypes.
Surprisingly, women today are still restricted from performing certain job functions. The Pentagon, for example, recently ordered all branches of the military to integrate their ground combat units by the end of the year to include women, or otherwise explain why women can’t do the job. Who knew, lest the people in the field, that all jobs were not accessible and equally available to women?
Locally, female firefighters are still battling to be treated equally. Although they’ve been fighting fires and saving lives for 30 years in the city, they still make up only 0.5 percent of the firefighting crew within the Fire Department of New York. Of the 51 women ever hired in the department’s 150-year history, only 11 of them have been Black women. Among them, only two have achieved the rank of lieutenant.
Today, women in the department are working hard to educate the public about this job, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to be a woman and save lives.
Melissa Bennett First-year firefighter Engine 257, Canarsie, Brooklyn
Black women aren’t typically depicted as adrenaline junkies, but they do exist. Melissa Bennett, 25, was an EMT for two years before joining the Fire Department. She says it’s the business of saving lives that attracted her to the service industry in the first place, thus she became a “street doctor,” as she calls it.
Now a full-time firefighter, Bennett is totally in love with her job, especially with the daily variety it has to offer. Everyday is different.
“I delivered a baby on St. Patrick’s Day,” she reminisces. “We saved a 6-year-old boy from a burning building the other day. Everyday is different. You’re helping people in different kinds of ways.”
Although firefighting and being a heroine is exciting for her, Bennett admits her family wasn’t too thrilled about her decision at first. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman or maybe it’s just because she’s someone’s baby. Regardless of the reason, Bennett’s family believed the job was a little too dangerous for her. However, they seem proud, she says. Besides, Bennett is a tough woman and looks forward to the challenges the field has to offer.
“Becoming a firefighter wasn’t an easy journey. There aren’t a lot of females, and it’s a little discouraging,” she says. “The culture is different. You are the only female in your firehouse so you have to adapt to different egos and different personalities. It’s just different. But I thought of it as a challenge, so I took on to it and I loved it, and I still love it.”
At some point in her career, Bennett wants to become a “boss.”
Anita Daniel Probationary firefighter Engine 234, Brooklyn
She’s basically the intern of the firehouse right now, doing all the grunt work, learning from the veterans in the field, the usual career-life initiation. Anita Daniel didn’t have any elaborate dreams of becoming a firefighter. In fact, she was just looking for a stable job to support her daughter.
“Honestly, I took a bunch of city tests, and I thought, you know, this could be fun. And saving people is always awesome,” she says. “I’m a single mother and I needed that sense of security as well as something that I can wake up and say, ‘I’m ready to go to work, I can’t wait to go to work, I’m excited.’”
The job is one that can be blighted with horrors, dangers and challenges, but she says, at the end of the day, going home to her 3-year-old melts away all the emotional trauma and stress the field can sometimes bring.
Being a mother in this field comes with perks. She admits the hours are perfect and tend to work well with her child care schedule, providing the opportunity to still be an active mom as well as a lifesaver. Even when the job presents conflicts, Daniel says the guys at the firehouse provide support. The 23-year-old speaks about her job as if she found the best kept secret in the world.
Daniel graduated from firefighter school in November 2014 and will be going through this probationary period for a few more months. The FDNY probationary period lasts 12 months. While she’s earning her stripes, she’s got her sights set on the future.
“I want to make it all the way to chief, and make it so that more women are interested in taking the job. This is history. I’m proud to say I’m one of the first. Although women have been in the department for 30 years, it’s still pretty new. I hope to incorporate more women in the job and have everything more equal.”
Tenisha Forbes Seven-year firefighter Engine 230, Bed-Stuy
It took two rounds in the academy and a three-year wait to finally become a firefighter. While going through a divorce and raising two young girls, Tenisha Forbes, now 39, says becoming a firefighter was not the easiest process, but the rewards are numerous.
She worked office jobs, retail and other occupations clearly made for women before she decided to seek something else.
“I’ve always been into blue-collar work. I wanted to be either a plumber or construction worker,” she says, laughing. “I went to a job seminar and I saw Tracy Lewis recruiting and I was just amazed. I couldn’t believe I saw a Black female firefighter, and she was just talking about the schedule and what she does and I was like, oh my God, that’s the job for me.”
Since officially coming onto the job, Forbes has grown as a woman and as a worker. She says the most challenging aspect about the job is staying in shape, especially as she ages. Her routine includes workout classes at the Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn, along with a boxing class and running. In the beginning, however, there were other challenges. At times feeling inferior to men complicated the way she operated among her peers.
“I felt that was the main thing that held me back. There are some guys that are stronger than me. There are some guys that I am stronger than. The thing is to do what I can do to get the job done,” she says. “I started focusing on what I can do to get my job done instead of trying to live up to what he can do. I feel like I’m doing a much better job because I’m doing what I know I’m capable of doing, and I get the job done.”
After working for years on the job and dealing with disparaging remarks related to her gender, Forbes has established her presence as a woman in the field and is confident in what she can do to serve others. And that is all that matters at the end of the day.
Tracy Lewis 14-year firefighter and lieutenant Division 11, Battalion 4-8
She is a boss. Tracy Lewis is the second Black woman in the department’s history to be promoted to lieutenant and is situated not only as a respected authority, but as a reminder to others that the FDNY has so much work to do. Lewis is passionate about her job and is pioneering a path of mentorship for Black woman in the field. Although she oversees hundreds of employees and has to recruit all kinds of able bodies, she is dedicated to encouraging women to join the ranks.
“People talk about how few women there are in the department, but a lot of women don’t know female firefighters exist. There’s a lot of times when I’m on a job, people see me and say, ‘Oh, you’re a woman! Are you the first?’” she says. “We do recruitment in schools and let them know there are women firefighters, and when women sign up we reach out to them.”
Lewis is all about cultivating a community within the industry for women to provide mentorship and support as they grow in their careers because she and others understand the challenges women face. Lewis admits that although she loves her job and the people she works with, women are still dealing with inequality on a basic level. Women have been working in the department since 1982, when the first wave of women joined. While gender inequality within the country has more to do with the intangible than concrete aspects of living and career, still there are some FDNY firehouses that are still without women’s restrooms. Lewis wants to help bring balance in the department.
The 42-year-old lieutenant’s journey began as a child when she watched in admiration the fire engines swinging around corners and sirens blasting through streets to save people. As an adult, she was attracted to the lifesaving industry and worked as an EMT for a few years before becoming a firefighter.
“I love my job. I love what I do. Sometimes I wake up and say, ‘What else would I do?’” she says. “You come to work and have no idea what the day is going to bring. You have to make decisions on the fly. You’re constantly thinking. Not all buildings are the same, not all fires are the same. Everything is really different and that’s what I love about this job. And I work with a great group of people.”
Regina Wilson 16-year firefighter Engine 219, Brooklyn
No one knew exactly what was going on, but her engine was called to the scene when the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. After parking the engine at a safe distance from the site, Regina Wilson and her crew began trekking to the towers. As they walked toward the site, the first building fell and the sky blacked out. Unsure if she’d make it out, Wilson decided to surrender to the idea of death, called family and shed all fear to focus on the job. Her crew lost several members that day, but she made it out.
Firefighters are close to death each time they go inside of a burning building, save a life or deal with an unfamiliar situation, but Wilson says she has come to a place where it’s only about doing the job and doing it correctly. Becoming a firefighter just kind of happened for her. It was at a Black Expo at the Javits Center where Wilson was recruited. It wasn’t about saving lives or the money. It was the fact that there were so few African-Americans and so few women in the field that Wilson decided to challenge the status quo and become a firefighter.
Sixteen years in, the 45-year-old heroine is now the president of the Vulcan Society, an organization of Black firefighters, and is dedicated to improving the diversity within the department.
“It’s sad to me that people think women can’t do this and people see firefighters as one color and one gender. What’s really sad to me is that women don’t think of how powerful and strong we are. Through the history of time, we have done the impossible,” she says.
Despite firefighting being a testosterone-driven field, Wilson says lady firefighters still want to and can be “pink.” They still dress up and wear heels and like to go out, but not all men can imagine the balance.
“Men get intimidated or try to be more masculine so you get people who suddenly want to do pushups or something,” she says with a laugh. “Dating men is like how some guys feel in the firehouse when they see a woman come on. They feel like it’s testing their manhood. You just end up dating people and not being in serious relationships. When I date, I just want to be pink. I’m not trying to be a man and I don’t want to be a man. I want to get my nails painted and be a woman. I’m a strong woman, but I am a woman. You have to be with a really secure man.”
Although she doesn’t know everyone’s stories, Wilson says for many women in the field, dating can be one of the toughest issues, especially for women who are ranked. But that won’t stop her from seeking a higher position. The veteran firefighter hopes to achieve rank before the end of her term as president of the Vulcan Society.