A few weeks ago, Tim and I attended a recognition of service ceremony. One speaker addressed the crowd as “Firemen” then quickly corrected himself and added “Firewomen.” A female voice, from the back of the room, corrected him with a loud, “Firefighters.” This got me to pondering… Firefighting has historically been a male profession throughout the world, so who was the first American firewoman?
The first known female firefighter in the United States was Molly Williams. An African American, she was held as a slave belonging to a New York City merchant by the name of Benjamin Aymar. In most cases, the men that volunteered in the early days were those who had the most to lose. Merchants like Aymar could be wiped out by one spark of the “red devil” if it flamed out of control among the warehouses along lower Manhattan. Whatever Aymar’s motivations were, he didn’t give up his lifestyle when he worked his volunteer shifts at Oceanus Engine Company #11. To make sure he was properly tended to he brought along his slave, Molly. Molly cooked and cleaned for the firemen. She also helped maintain the heavy, hand-pulled water pumper. According to lore, Molly was in the fire house with Aymar, doing her chores as well as taking care of the men who had been stricken with a severe flu.
The alarm bell sounded. There was a fire, and Molly was one of the few well enough to go. She had been around the fire house enough to know how the pumper worked, so it was during the blizzard of 1818, Molly Williams took her place on the dragropes and hauled out the pumper with as much strength and speed as any man. Answering the call of duty, she helped pull the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.
During her “unofficial” time in the company she was called Volunteer No. 11. Williams was a distinguished presence. She was said to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” Her first sturdy work clothes were a calico dress and checked apron. Later she was given a fireman’s uniform to wear when duty called. Charles Dickens, in the mid-1800s, once wrote of seeing a group of merry firefighters tromping through a snowstorm in New York City. In their midst, a smiling black man who sang along with them with great glee, a woolen red muffler wrapped round his neck.
Dany Cotton is a British firefighter. Since 2017, she has served as the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade and is the first woman to hold this position. In 2004 she was the first woman to win the Queen’s Fire Service Medal, highest ranking operational female firefighter in the country. Since the 1970s, women have made inroads into the fire service, in both professional and volunteer departments. Today women serve in a variety of roles, including fire chiefs.
There are challenges for any gender who chooses firefighting as a career. Boys and girls alike, can now grow up dreaming of being firefighters. But it takes a rare breed to become and continue to be a firefighter. To be the first at something sometimes falls into your life, like it did for Molly Williams, because you were at the right place at the right time with the right abilities and circumstance to fulfill that dream. Sometimes being the first at something is accomplished by purposely laying tracks and sticking with the dream of being the first. Either way, men or women or transgender, whatever you do, honor the dream inside of you.
Sources: History of Women in Firefighting – Women in Fire and Wikipedia.