Madison Fire Department Celebrates 35th Anniversary of the First Women Firefighters

This day, February 4th, 2015, marks the 35th anniversary of women joining the Madison Fire Department (MFD).  The Department was in its 144th year in February of 1980, and the idea of women entering this "last male bastion," as it has been referred to by Rory Ward, the eldest of the 10 women in the class, made for no easy transition.  Politically, the City of Madison Fire Department was under pressure to change--maybe before it was ready--but this change was necessitated by an Affirmative Action plan that mandated the Department increase its minority staffing.  At this time, the idea of women in fire suppression was a relatively new concept, and some departments would not even give women an application.  Denise Sullivan, a twenty-two-year-old recruit of the 1980 Class, recalls that in 1979, St. Paul, MN had denied her an application.

Nationwide, the first woman to be hired full-time on a career department was Judith Livers in March of 1974 in Arlington County, Virginia.  For perspective, Chicago hired its first women in 1978, New York in 1982, and Minneapolis in 1985. When Madison hired 10 women in 1980, it is thought this was the largest percentage, and greatest number of women hired at any one time.

The Class of February 1980 was diverse and large, with 33 recruits. It was comprised of 10 Caucasian women, 15 Caucasian men, 7 African American men, and 1 Hispanic man.  All of the recruits were under a microscope, but no group seemed more scrutinized than the women.  It was believed by some of the recruits that there was a portion of the Fire Department, which did not want to see a woman graduate at the top of the class. 

Marcia Holtz and Mary Freitag, later Sweeney, were first hired in 1978 by Madison Fire Chief Eldon Maginnis. They started an eight-week recruit academy with 11 other recruits.  At the three-week mark, they were fired without warning, along with 2 men, one of whom was a minority man.  States Holtz, "I didn't know we were going to be fired until I read about it in the paper."   The women, along with the minority man, filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court.

During the ensuing court battle, the Madison Fire Department was going through another change: to replace their Fire Chief. In November 1978, Chief Eldon Maginnis had announced his plans to retire on his 55th birthday, August 20, 1979. By June of 1979, a new Chief was selected: a Madison native who had risen through the ranks of the MFD, Captain Edward D. Durkin.

The court case was resolved by settlement, and it was required that the three fired recruits be offered a position in the next class. The two women accepted; this was their opportunity.

When the Feb 4, 1980 recruit academy began, many people felt Chief Durkin made every effort possible to ensure that the women and minorities would succeed.  Lieutenant Robert Hansbro, an African American recruit in the Class of 1980 and one of three still active on the MFD, states, "Chief Durkin said he wanted to start the base with strong candidates so that they would be around, and that there would be a foundation to build upon.  He certainly didn't want candidates to get 'beat up' and leave. That is why he hired 10 women and 7 African Americans together." Chief Durkin also did not allow some of the instructors from the turbulent Class of 1978 to teach in the 1980 Class, in hopes of easing tension.

At the end of the February 1980 recruit academy, 8 of the 10 women passed, as well as all 7 of the African American men, the Hispanic man, and all 15 of the Caucasian males.  The leadership of the women in the class of 1980 did not stop the day they graduated; instead, they continued to break down the barriers of the male-dominated profession.  Many of the women hired in 1980 went on to become Paramedics and Apparatus Engineers, as well as leadership roles such as Lieutenants and Division Chiefs. In doing so they paved the way for many of the more recent successes of the organization today.

Today the Madison Fire Department employs 368 firefighters, 42 of which are women, which is 11.4%.  The highest percentage of women in the MFD occurred 13 years ago in 2003, when there were 45 women out of 281, for 16%. From 1980 to today, the number has hovered anywhere from 3.6% to 16%. The numbers keep changing, but it is thought that among urban departments with more than 75 career personnel, Madison ranks 4th in highest percentage of women firefighters. This follows Boulder, CO at 14%, Clay County, FL 13.8%, and San Francisco 11.7%.  However, several large urban fire departments have no women at all.

It is anticipated that the Madison Fire Department will start the next hiring process in the fall of 2015 when applications will be available.  Check for updates on www.madisonfire.org or receive instant hiring and department updates by subscribing to our email lists at www.cityofmadison.com.
The City of Madison is an Equal Opportunity Employer, and encourages women and minorities to apply.

The Class of 1980 Women Firefighters:
Beverly M. Buhr (ret. PM), Marcia Holtz (ret. Division Chief), Pamela L. Jacobson (ret. Lt.), Jan E. Jefferson (ret. Lt.), Christine La Frenier (resigned), Barb Schmidt (resigned), Laura L. Smith (resigned), Denise Sullivan (ret. PM), Mary Freitag Sweeney (ret. Lt.), Rory Ward (ret. Lt.)

Madison Firefighters


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