By Hannah Hogness
When you think of a firefighter, what likely comes to mind is a tall, sculpted male. So of course I thought I could fit the bill: a plump college girl, standing 5 feet 3 inches, and very, very out of shape. But I was not alone in my firefighter training ventures this past summer. I had recruited my college roommate Emily: a tall, built Finnish lass who I could count on to toss me over a shoulder and haul me cross-country if we were in any sort of danger.
The first day of training, Emily and I showed up with sleep in our eyes and no idea of what to expect. Everyone stated their names, the company they worked for, and where they were from. Emily and I exchanged glances. Company name? Huh. That was a curveball. We were both working for my good friend Willy Duguay’s father, Bill Duguay, who I now know owns a company called Methow River Fires.
At the end of 30 some introductions, our instructor remarked, “Six girls this year! That’s a record.” Going into the summer, I knew I would be working in a male-dominated field, with less than 7 percent being women.
During lunch, a young man gestured to me and Emily that we should move in front of him in the line. “Ladies first,” he said. I smiled and went ahead. A man cut in front of me and the younger lad scoffed, “ugh, how rude. Doesn’t he know to let a lady go first?”
I just smiled and replied, “ah, it’s okay! We’ll all get food at some point, it doesn’t really matter what order we go in.”
I didn’t think too much of the exchange, and knew he was just being polite. In any case, after watching me destroy a pulled pork sandwich I’m sure his “lady” label was dropped.
We took breaks through out the day because we had the attention span of a class of kindergarteners, mixed with the nicotine addictions of some of my classmates. We ended up breaking every 45 minutes.
During one of these breaks, a group of guys were sharing “battle” stories of people they’d beaten up or fought with. I somehow found myself in this circle of conversation and when it came my turn to share a story I said, “In the 10th grade I broke up a fight between two seventh-graders, so yah, I’m pretty masculine as well.” Emily joined in on the joke and boasted about brutally hitting bugs with her car, bugs that “really had it comin’!”
The sarcastic humor continued throughout the three days of training whenever the masculinity quotient was invoked. There was a discussion of how many guns each man had, followed with a story of sexual conquests. I joked, “Gosh, so much testosterone my balls are going to drop.”
At other times, Emily and I were less comfortable participating.
I shared some of these stories with Willy later that week, and he shared his list of ridiculous quotes he’d heard from men he’d worked with throughout the years, including some offensive and vulgar examples. I asked Willy how he was OK with behavior like that. He said he didn’t think it was right, but most of the time “they’re just nice guys who don’t know any better.”
This stuck with me. The idea that inequality, my inequality, was being perpetrated just because the people behind some of this inequality were “nice guys.” I thought back to the man who insisted that ladies go first. Although that was a nice gesture, it made it so easy for me to be looked at as “different” from him, not equal.
Another aspect of this conversation that angered me was the fact that it would have been rude to correct these “nice guys.” Actions and comments that clearly separated the woman and man in unequal scales were furthering the very real problem of inequality.
As we all know, there was very little fire work over the summer. In fact, Emily and I didn’t get called out to a single fire. As much as we enjoyed life as beach bodies lounging at Patterson, we needed to make money. We both got jobs at the Mazama Store and the Freestone Inn.
The anger about inequality faded with summer sunsets, and for some reason I didn’t expect it to occur again outside of firefighting.
A customer came into the Mazama Store, approached me and asked what my favorite brew of kombucha was. Being the Bucha Brew master that I am, I responded “The Love flavor, definitely one of my favorites!” He laughed and replied, “Leave it to a woman to suggest the ‘Love’ flavor, am I right? Ha ha!”
Ah, yes. I do so love being stereotyped in the most original way possible. But I knew the customer as a local and just retrieved him his intentionally foamy kombucha.
I thought about this interaction the rest of the day. It was another instance where it would have been rude of me to say “hey, don’t stereotype please, you’re really making this whole equal gender thing a tad bit harder for us.”
I reflected on gender roles in the valley for a large part of this summer. I tried to recall having some sort of class discussion about it, some sort of open conversation, and couldn’t pinpoint an academic conversation around the topic. I knew I wanted to write about it and talked to some close friends about how to address my ideas and got much of the same feedback: to be delicate with the topic, and to not offend the community.
How did a discussion about equality, about a human right, turn into me tiptoeing around the discussion? Why is gender equality treated like some sort of political conversation? And this isn’t just a conversation for women, that’s only roughly half the population! This is a necessary discussion of a problem that affects both genders. Why is there a standard of the “masculine man?” Why did those men I trained with orient all their conversations around stereotypical “male” characteristics?
Gender inequality is a global injustice, but the lack of discussion is a problem localized in the valley. That’s what this article is: an introduction to and invitation for open a community conversation about this problem that in my experience hasn’t been talked about nearly enough.
Hannah Hogness, a 2015 graduate of Liberty Bell High School, is a sophomore at Seattle University.