Just three. Three women stand among the more than 700 firefighters who work diligently for the city of Cleveland.
It’s a grueling, dangerous job that takes dedication, perseverance and strength. Throughout their careers, Deberra Schroeder, Justina Saxby and Daphne Tyus have been up to the challenge, whether it came in the form of the training academy — an 18-week boot camp designed to test agility, muscle and skill — or the stereotypes and sexism they encountered along the way.
In 1985, Schroeder and Saxby were among a class of 10 females hired due to an agreement that sprung out of a class-action lawsuit that alleged discrimination against women in the fire department
“Back then, everything was based on speed,” says Saxby. “Obviously, the faster you did it, the better your score was going to be. And obviously, women can’t compete against men based on speed. So there weren’t a lot of women doing it.”
At its high point, only 13 women worked in the fire department at one time. So, it’s understandable that it was difficult to overcome the male dominance and skepticism. Schroeder, Saxby and Tyus each felt the effects.
“You’re already in an environment that’s put upon you: ‘You can’t do what I do,’ ” says Tyus. “So you have to push three, four times harder. You have to make it happen with all that’s within you. And to our surprise, it happens.”
They’ve fought fires, rescued women, children and men, and risked their own lives. With a combined 94 years of service, these women have risen up through the ranks and held their own. But who will fill their boots?
The city hasn’t hired a female firefighter since 1989. So for now, it’s up to these three to ignite a passion in the next generation of strong women.
“I don’t want more females on the Cleveland fire department,” says Schroeder. “I want more females that want to be on the Cleveland fire department.