Women firsts: The first women parachutists

As the old joke goes, “Who would want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” While humorous, it wasn’t too far from the reason parachutes were invented. At least someone had thought of the fact that along with inventing the airplane, pilots would need a way to bail out should something go wrong. And of course, they had to practice.

However, first came parachuting from hot air balloons.

The first woman to jump out of a balloon was Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin wearing her husband, Andre’s, frameless chute, in 1799. Jeanne-Genevieve and her husband flew and jumped out of balloons (perfectly good ones, at that) for entertainment events.

It wasn’t until 1913 that a woman leapt from a plane. Georgina Ann “Tiny” Thompson had a very rough time early in life: married at 12 years old, her first baby at 13, slaving in a cotton mill for 14 hours a day—it wasn’t until she turned 15 that she thought to change her destiny. What inspired her? A Charles Broadwick carnival parachute show. “Tiny” would wear fancy bloomers and pink ribbons as she stepped out of the plane’s doors, floating gracefully to the ground for 2000 feet. Back then, the parachute was rigged to open from a string attached to the fuselage. It wasn’t until a near-tragedy occurred—the parachute ropes got tangled in the tail—that “Tiny” did the only thing she could think to do: she cut the ropes, and while free-falling, pulled the leftover line and effectively getting the chute to open. She’d just invented the ripcord.

If that wasn’t enough to scare her into staying on the ground, I don’t know what would. There were a number of additional frightening incidents to follow during her over 1000 jumps, including tangling in high-tension wires and even a windmill. Once she landed on the roof of a train, although there is no mention if it was moving or not. “Tiny” continued to parachute, and throughout WWI she was an advisor for the U.S. Army Air Corps. She died at the age of 85.

Women firsts: The first woman into space

Most people assume Sally Ride was the first woman in space. Ms. Ride performed as mission specialist aboard the Challenger in 1983. But did you know she was not the first woman in space, but the first American woman in space?

Valentina Tereshkova beat Sally Ride into space by twenty years. Ms. Tereshkova fell in love with skydiving at the age of 22, attracting the attention of the Soviet space program, who wanted not only to beat the United States into space, but beat them into space with a woman onboard. In June of 1963, Soviet Cosmonaut Tereshkova made 48 orbits over a time period of 71 hours, longer than all U.S. astronauts spent in space combined, up until then. Where her sky diving expertise came into play was with the tricky 20,000 foot capsule ejection required during reentry. How’s that for nerves of steel? After her amazing feat, she never flew again.

Where was the United States during all of this? The U.S. did consider allowing women into the space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but decided to keep the program all male until Sally Ride joined twenty years later.

Women firsts: Molly Williams, the first firefighter for the Fire Department of the City of New York

The very first woman firefighter was not a woman looking “to do a man’s job”. In fact, she wasn’t even a woman free to make decisions. Molly Williams was a New York City black woman and a slave. Her owner, Benjamin Aymar, happened to be a volunteer fireman.

In 1818, a crippling blizzard hit New York City at the same time a massive flu outbreak sickened the entire male fire crew. With everyone out of commission except Molly, what else could she do but pitch in when a fire call came in? Wearing a calico dress, she dragged out the pumper and tackled that blaze all by herself.

However, 164 years would pass before New York City would see a woman fighting a fire. Not until 1982 did Brenda Berkman become the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY) first woman firefighter. While the distinction was overdue, it wasn’t an easy time. Male firefighters made her life miserable. One even cut her fingers with a knife after she attempted to scrape off a degrading article about women on fire crews pasted on the firehouse wall. What happened to the man? He was suspended without pay and fined $15,000, but did not lose his job. His buddies raised enough money to pay the fine, so even that punishment had no meaning.

Over the next ten years, more women stepped into firefighting jobs with the department. One is now a lieutenant and the other became head of United Women Firefighters for four years. While the number of women in the FDNY is at 43, that hasn’t change much since the original women joined in 1982. Firefighters Regina Wilson and Tracy Lewis are both avid recruiters, hoping more women join them in what Lewis calls ‘a tough job, but one she loves’.

Women firsts: Helen Richey, the first woman commercial airliner pilot and so much more

Helen Richey never was much interested in dolls and dresses as a young girl, which probably didn’t sit well with folks in 1909. With her father in education, she was lucky to be able to attend college for an education career, but it bored her, and she dropped out. Teaching just didn’t interest her What to do with her life? She’d no clue.

Helen and a girlfriend decided to go fly in an airplane. It’s funny how things in life can just fall into your lap: when their plane landed in Cleveland after a short flight, she arrived just in time to see aviator Ruth Nichols, surrounded by the press, fussing over her and taking photos left and right. Bingo! Right then and there she knew she wanted to be a pilot.

By the summer of 1930, she received her pilot’s license, and as a reward, her father bought her an open-cockpit bi-plane. That was fun; but Helen already had her sights set on flying a commercial airliner. Six months later, she had that license as well. But that was not enough for this ambitious young woman. She wanted more! Next on her agenda: stunt flying. Helen took to aerobatic piloting like she’d been doing it all her life. In a mere two years, she had achieved national recognition, and came in third place in the 1932 Amelia Earhart Trophy race.

Helen continued to participate in races across the country for two more years. After the loss of a close female aviator friend in a tragic plane crash, she abandoned stunt flying. In December of 1934, she accepted a job with Central Airlines, becoming the first woman to fly a commercial airlines on a regular schedule. That was all well-and-good, until she discovered that the airlines had ulterior motives. They wanted to cash-in on her notoriety. She actually flew very little, and when she did, it was under strict guidelines: only in good weather. Her male counterparts gave her a hard time, souring this job in less than a year.

Although WWII had not begun, there were enough signs that Helen thought to prepare. She enrolled in pilot instruction courses, and soon was ready to train military pilots. After that, she taught airline pilots how to become instructors.

Helen finally became involved in WWII in 1942, but not in the United States. In England, she would join the British Air Transport Auxiliary, or ATA. In the ATA, she ferried planes from factories to airfields. This might sound easy, but in reality, she never knew what kind of plane she would be flying, and would find herself scrambling to read the manual to figure out how to take off and land the darned thing.

About nine months later, Helen returned to the United States to organize a group of female pilots. This happened about the same time her mother became seriously ill, and died. Despite her loss, and silent grief, she did manage to keep racking up flight hours and notoriety. She achieved the rank of Major.

After the war, it became harder for her to find employment as a female pilot, because men were returning and were given the jobs she was qualified for. Depressed over the death of her mother, a close friend, feeling unappreciated and lost, Helen committed suicide on January 7th, 1947.

Such a tragic ending for such an inspirational story of courage and fortitude.

In March of 2010, Helen Richey received the Congressional Gold Medal for her WWII service. It’s sad she wasn’t appreciated sooner for all of her wonderful accomplishments.

Is firefighting all about physical strength?

Quite often the first thing people think of when they imagine what it takes to be a wildland firefighter is physical strength. I’ve had people look at me and say they can’t imagine how little-bitty-me could have possibly handled such a job. If you are a woman considering a fire job, but worried you aren’t strong enough, stop worrying.

The deal is—physical strength is not the only attribute needed to handle a tough job like firefighting. Who would make an ideal firefighter? While not everyone can all have all of the same attributes, here are some personal qualities that certainly would contribute to a sound and effective fire crew.

First off, fitness level and stamina are important, maybe more important than strength, and are something that anyone, regardless of gender, can attain with training and dedication to staying fit. Eating right? That’s a plus; because you can’t put the kind of demands firefighting requires on a body running on junk food and alcohol.

How about dependability, honestly and being trustworthy? If you can’t depend or trust someone on your crew, you’re all in trouble. Someone who is a quick-thinker and a quick-learner is important, especially if they can tap into those resources under pressure. I’d sure want to have someone like that by my side on the fireline. That goes hand-in-hand with dedication. You have to be dedicated to this job, or else find another line of work that is better suited to you.

Good communication skills are a must: which means that not only do you need to be able to express yourself clearly, you must know how to listen. Little is more detrimental to getting the job done right than someone who acts like they are listening, but are too busy thinking about what they will say next to actually comprehend what they are hearing.

What about common sense? It’s not as common as the term implies, and those that have it are one or even two steps ahead of everyone else. A sense of humor is also a bonus—a whiner and complainer can bring morale down, which is not good for teamwork.

To be clear, not everyone can have every one of those attributes. This is why a fire crew, composed of diverse members who all contribute their individual strengths, make the team stronger than it would be if everyone had identical strengths and weaknesses—and there will be weaknesses. We all have them! The ideal fire crew will have multiple, non-duplicated strengths, and will cover each other’s weaknesses, therefore making the weak spots less pronounced. Gender has nothing to do with what makes or breaks a good fire crew.

Women Firsts: Emma (Grandma) Gatewood; the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian Trail

If you’ve read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, you probably enjoyed his escapades with his buddy, Katz, while the unlikely pair attempted to complete the Appalachian Trail. It’s a good story, but recently I stumbled on an article about the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian Trail in May of 1955, at the age of 67—six months before I was born.

Emma (Grandma) Gatewood didn’t have any fancy hiking equipment. No sleeping bag, tent, backpack, hiking boots, raincoat, trail mix, or special hiking clothes for her. She is quoted to have said, “Most people today are pantywaists.”

Well this woman was certainly no pantywaist. Emma carried her supplies in a denim draw-string bag. Her simple gear consisted of a woolen Army blanket, and a shower curtain for a raincoat. She owned no fancy hiking boots—Keds worked just fine—although they needed regular replacement. Peanuts were her energy bars. Canned Vienna sausages were one of her staples. What else did she eat? Whatever she could find: wild strawberries, sorrel, and wild onions. Kind strangers sometimes shared food with her, what she referred to as “trail magic.”

I love stories about women “firsts.” It goes to show women were tough back then, and certainly have the ability to be tough now. I don’t know if anyone gave her a hard time about hiking that 2050 mile trail alone, but it doesn’t matter. She wanted to, and she did. 

What happened to the Federal Women's Program?

The High Country News just published yet another article on the challenges of being a woman on a wildland fire crew. Again, it brought back the anger and resentment of being treated as less than equal.

One thing I’ve not seen in the articles published lately, is much about the Federal Women’s Program (FWP). The FWP was formed in response to adding gender to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEO) of 1969. Established in the early 1970’s to promote women in the Forest Service as the entered a “men only” world, this organization held workshops to educate women not only on how to advance careers, but what to do in the event they face sexual discrimination, harassment, or a hostile workplace.

My experiences with FWP began in 1976, near the end of my first fire season. A five-day workshop was held in Patagonia, AZ, where 36 women from the Coronado National Forest gathered to learn what FWP was all about. Out of those 36 women, only three were firefighters, including me.

After the first session, I began to realize women weren’t welcome in the Forest Service unless they were timekeepers (my first Forest Service job), fire lookouts, or in other office work positions. While two of men on my crew made it clear they didn’t want me there, the rest of the guys accepted me, or so I thought. One of the other woman firefighters told me how horribly she was treated, including being left behind while the men went to fires. At least that hadn’t happened to me. I fought six fires that summer.

On the last day of the workshop, the facilitator gave us an assignment: interview the men we worked with and ask them their opinion of women on fire crews. We would then meet at a later date to discuss our findings.

Not remotely concerned about this, I approached the assignment thinking all would be fine. But it was not. I learned a very painful lesson that day, one that changed my sunny disposition and career outlook dramatically. Only three of the men I’d worked with all summer approved of my presence on the crew.

However, that didn’t stop me from pursuing this career. It wasn’t until 1978 I was denied a job outright because I was female. Using the resources I was given by the FWP facilitator, I filed an EEO complaint against the man who told me he would not give me a job I was fully qualified for because he “didn’t hire women on his hotshot crew.” What happened? Absolutely nothing. He denied the conversation took place. That was just the beginning, however, because later I would discover that this complaint would follow me to another National Forest, and blacklist me forever as a troublemaker. Where was the FWP during this? Nowhere to be found.

Women still have a long ways to go in this field. It’s gratifying to see more published articles, but is that enough to change attitudes of hiring managers and fellow crewmembers? I used to blame it on the times (mid 1970’s) and old-school thinking, but that doesn’t explain young men today for thinking the exact same way as men thought of women 40 years ago.

So where is FWP now? How is it helping women in the Forest Service? From what I’ve read, the organization still exists, but is far from being active in the cause it was formed to advance. Changing attitudes will take more than education, I’m afraid. It appears the only thing that will change attitudes was, and still is, women proving they have what it takes.