Friday, April 12, 2013

“As Good a Fire Laddie as Many of the Boys”

Firefighting items for kids in our gift shop

by Nicole Griffetts, education coordinator

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act attempted to end the wage disparity between men and women.  In the early 1970s, women took to the streets in protest to advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment. In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act expanded upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to allow women (and men) more channels to file employer sex discrimination lawsuits.  In 2013, the Pentagon officially lifted its ban on women serving on the front lines, opening up numerous opportunities for female service members.

Before all of that, however, was a young girl with a dream.  Genois Wilson, born in 1949 and raised in Fort Wayne, was changed forever when she saw her older sister suffer critical injuries after a house fire. From that event came the inspiration to educate the public on fire safety and to fight fires in the community.  Genois pursued her education and earned an anthropology degree from Indiana University. Her career with the Fort Wayne Fire Department began in 1975 when she became the call dispatcher. In 1979, Genois Wilson made history when she completed the training academy and became the first female firefighter in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The road to making Fort Wayne history was certainly not easy, and there were many barriers that previous generations of women around the nation grappled with.  The first female firefighter in America dates back to the bucket brigades and is believed to be Molly Williams, a slave living in New York in 1815.  Her reputation as being “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys” earned her respect among her counterparts.  Williams inspired other women to take up firefighting, many of whom did so voluntarily.  When a destructive fire broke out in rural Pennsylvania in the 1820s, it was a woman who had to throw buckets of water on men to motivate them to take action and assist with the fire. During WWII, the spirit of volunteerism continued when women formed all-female crews in their communities.

The twentieth century brought expanded opportunities for women, but challenges remained. Genois Wilson did not stay at the fire station because there were no female quarters when she started her career. Nationally, some stations developed “separate but equal” physical tests that were created to cause inevitable failure. 

Genois Wilson helped to blaze a trail for women interested in careers typically reserved for men. (In 2012, Amy Biggs became the first female Fire Chief in Fort Wayne.)  During her career, Wilson developed extensive educational resources for fire safety and initiated a drive to provide smoke detectors for low-income families. She is the first woman to have received the Firefighter of the Year Award in Indiana. Genois retired in 1995 with a solid legacy of public service that continues to motivate new generations of young women with similar ambitions.

For more information on Genois Wilson, or to share her story with your young historians and children, check out the newly published Genois Wilson: She Dared to be First by Carol Butler, now available in the History Center’s gift shop. 

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