The Inspiring History of Women in Firefighting in the U.S.

Molly Williams, first known female firefighter in the U.S.

The first known woman to join a firefighting brigade may not have done so by choice.

By Keri Engel
Amazing Women in History


Are there female firefighters? How many, and who was the first? The history of organized firefighting began all the way back in Ancient Rome. Since then, most organized firefighting forces have been made up of men… until recently.

Still, as in most all-male occupations throughout history, there were always a few women who made their way onto the team anyway (like Civil War soldier Cathay Williams).

Today, women make up less than 10% of firefighters in the United States, and they’re still struggling for acceptance and equal treatment.

The First Female Firefighters in the United States

The first known woman to join a firefighting brigade may not have done so by choice.

Molly Williams was a slave owned by a merchant who served with the Oceanus Engine Company #11 in New York City. Molly, called Volunteer 11, was said to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” She is especially remembered for her work during a blizzard in 1818, when many of the men were ill from an influenza outbreak and unable to help.

Lillie Hitchcock was another well-known firefighter of the 19th century. A San Francisco heiress, ‘Firebelle Lil’ was fascinated by firefighters her whole life, and would often chase them to the scene of a fire. She was named an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company #5 in 1859 after helping the company drag their engine to a fire.

All-Female Fire Brigades

Beginning in the early 20th century, women who wanted to volunteer as firefighters were sometimes organized into separate women’s brigades. Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California, each had their own women’s volunteer fire companies in the 1910s, and King County in California and Woodbine in Texas developed their own all-women fire companies in the 1960s.

Many women entered the workforce while men were fought during World War II, and women also joined volunteer fire service to replace the missing men. In Illinois, there were two all-women military fire departments during the war.

With the advent of the women’s lib movement in the 1960s and 70s, it became more common for women to join the regular volunteer fire departments and work together with male firefighters. By the end of the 1970s, all-women brigades were no longer used.

The First Paid Female Firefighters

In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, which in Title VII prohibits discrimination in hiring on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The first female career firefighters were then hired in the 1970s.

Sandra Forcier was hired in 1973 as a Public Safety Officer, a combination police officer and firefighter, in North Carolina.

The next year, Judith Livers became the first known woman to become a career firefighter when she was hired by the Arlington County, Virginia, fire department. Both women retired at the rank of battalion chief.

Ruth E. Capello was the first woman to become a fire chief in the United States in Oregon in 1973.

It wasn’t easy for them, though. Brenda Berkman, the first female member of the New York City Fire Department, won a lawsuit against the City of New York that claimed that the firefighter’s exam discriminated against women. She passed the revised test in 1982, and stuck with the job despite years of threats and harassment.

I don’t think of myself as just opening the door for girls and women. I opened doors for everyone. I think of myself as expanding the idea of how wrong gender stereotypes are for boys and girls.

Brenda Berkman, the first female member of the New York City Fire Department

Female firefighters often experience challenges today, including inappropriate facilities, ill-fitting equipment, discrimination and harassment.

Still, the ranks of women firefighter are still growing.

Today thousands of women across the United States are career firefighters, and tens of thousands of women volunteer. As of 2002, women make up only about 2% of firefighters nationwide.

Originally published by Amazing Women in History, 05.06.2019, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.