Getting to the root of the fire services' misogynistic weed

Eradicating harassing behavior toward female firefighters will take more than good policy and practice


A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping channels and landed on a PBS show about a biblical scholar who was looking for the Garden of Eden. In doing so, she theorized that the Judeo-Christian societies have used the story of Eve's tempting Adam as an excuse to blame women for mankind's separation from God, and thus all of what's wrong in the world.

That program had no fire service connection for me until I read the string of anonymous posts by presumed Fairfax County, Va. firefighters on Fairfax Underground before and following Nicole Mittendorff's suicide.

We may never know to what extent bullying and humiliation by her peers played in her suicide — it may have had no bearing at all. We do know that Mittendorff and other female firefighters and medics were subjected to some incredibly hateful remarks posted to the site.

Shockingly, some of the most vile remarks were posted after her remains were found.

If we think this attitude toward our sister firefighters is something that lives quarantined in Fairfax, we are grossly mistaken. It may not express itself as publically and to the extreme that it did in Fairfax, but it's there. Talk to almost any female firefighter long enough and you'll hear stories.

So the $60,000 question is: What's the fix?

At the organizational level there are clear steps — leading by example, sensitivity training and zero tolerance for infractions — to name a few.

But really fixing the problem can't be done by simply adding pages to the SOG book. It is a deeply individual issue.

What is at the root of misogyny? Why do so many men harbor varying levels of hatred for women?

Mittendorff's suicide pushed me to read up on this topic and I found no easy answers. One male psychotherapist and expert on the subject wrote a book attributing it to "mommy issues." In short, men never really get over being pushed away from the ultimate female love.

Others chalk it up to society's permissions and expectations in how men behave. Others blame religions for casting women and their sexuality in a subservient role.

Still others hold that it's our, men that is, inability to cope with women's sexuality. And it's not a huge leap to say men struggle to cope with sexuality in general — look how heterosexual men have treated homosexual men.

One idea floated takes it down to the species level. Basically, the idea is that males in the animal kingdom places great importance on ensuring their offspring are truly theirs and control the females' opportunities to mate with others. And humans fall into that mix.

However you look at it, misogyny goes way, way back. And that, of course, makes it doubly difficult to overcome. Again, you need training, policy and enforcement — but don't expect that alone to work.

In a recent Secret List mailing, Chief Goldfeder rightly urged men to behave toward women as though their spouses, mothers, sisters, daughters, etc. were standing at their side.

That individual behavior, that choice of behavior, is where the rubber meets the road. These issues may run back to our infancy, to centuries of cultural and religious messaging or to a time when we walked on all fours. Yet we have the intellectual wherewithal to decide how we behave.

The ideal outcome would be for all men to take a hard look in the mirror and come to terms with and eradicate misogynistic feelings, no matter how subtle or extreme they are.

But the expected minimum outcome has to be that we identify these feelings and check them at the door when we walk into the fire station. 

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