Susie Rosenthal had an historic career with the Seattle Fire Department climbing up the ranks before retiring as an Assistant Chief. She was one of the very first women to become a firefighter in Seattle and helped establish the prowess of women in the Seattle Fire Department. To this day, her name is one that evokes respect and admiration.
Back in 1980, a woman doing a “man’s job” wasn’t the norm. Susie broke stereotypes and completed rigorous training to earn her position as a firefighter and eventually was received as a leader among her peers. Presently, the Seattle Fire Department has 78 uniformed women (in a department of 985 uniformed members), including five Captains, two Battalion Chiefs and one Deputy Chief.
Though there is still clear room for growth, it is women like Susie who have helped pave the way for others to get involved in a male-dominated profession. Her career serves as an example for girls and women everywhere that you can choose what you want to do, no matter what anyone else says. You can make an impact if you decide to dream big enough.
Hope Solo: It is and absolute honor to meet you. At this point in my career I realize that so many women have the ability to inspire. I like to align myself with powerful women and women who can lead and can really show us how to take that next step. Obviously, in my career, we’re still trying to build the world of soccer. We’re trying to build women’s sports and we still have a lot of our own struggles.
So it’s an honor to meet you and I would love to hear your stories and what you’ve been through as a firefighter and climbing up the ranks.
Susie Rosenthal: It’s an honor to meet you, too. The achievement that you made (this summer) - world class, world champions, that’s as high as it gets, so I am humbled as well.
We have had some similar experiences. When did you start playing soccer?
HS: I was five years old.
SR: And what year was that?
SR: Okay, so the 80s, around the same time I was starting in the fire department. I was an adult, you were a kid, but it’s still the same journey to get to where you want to go. We have similar trajectories for women in sports and women in the fire service. We’re trying to make people understand and believe that we are as good as anybody else that is doing the job.
"Inspiring young women by showing what I’ve been able to accomplish in my career is one of the greatest things that I can do. I’ve been doing it since I got started." - Susie Rosenthal
I was one of the first women in the Seattle Fire Department and I’ve followed the career of all of the women since I came in until the present day. I have connections with the youngest and with other retired women.
HS: That’s really incredible. Well, you’re going to see all of our young fans out here today. They aspire to be professional soccer players or to be on the U.S. team and back in 1980 when I dreamed to be a professional soccer player, there was no such thing. There was no women’s professional soccer so it’s really cool to see how we have we have it for the youth of today and they can continue to dream big.
SR: Exactly. And being in Seattle, I have to say that with things so close to Canada, where you guys were winning the World Cup, was phenomenal. There was so much fan support down here that it just made us so proud. And men that wouldn’t be watching women’s sports under any other circumstance were totally watching and engaged in what was happening with women’s sports, and that’s really cool.
Same thing with being in a fire scene. You walk by and see a bunch of fire stations and firefighters putting out fires, and there is woman firefighter, too. For a little kid to see that, that leaves a big, big impression. It’s happening now.
HS: Definitely. It’s incredible because you have to command the respect. You don’t just walk in and everyone respects you, because it is sometimes a very much male-dominated working environment. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s you really had to earn and command respect by doing your job and doing it well. There was no excuse for failure, no excuse for mistakes and that’s a lot of pressure so it really is incredible that you were able to climb up the ranks and say ‘I’m here to stay and no one can push me away.’ That’s amazing, and I’m sure you have some incredible stories.
SR: Part of what enabled me to move up the ranks was being committed to taking tests. It’s a civil service job and you have to take very detailed exams to go from Lieutenant to Captain to Chief to Deputy Chief. I was willing to take all of that on as well as show up at the fire station everyday and deal with being the only woman in the station, the only woman in the battalion.
We would go months on the job and I’d never see another woman back in the day. Now, there are four women on a fire truck, which 30 years ago was unheard of. Things have definitely been chancing for the better and I’m really proud to have been part of that movement.
HS: Thank you. I mean, women worldwide in every occupation need to work together. We’re here to stay and you can look at the statistics and women still aren’t climbing up the ranks in some of the top jobs.
SR: How about pay equity? That is huge.
HS: Yeah, the pay equity. You’re a firefighter and work at a fire station, I’m a soccer player and work on the soccer field, but ultimately as women we all work together to get to a place of equality.
SR: Pay equity is huge. I mean, I make what male firefighters make. And it’s totally wrong you don’t. Pay equity is an issue across the board. I’m just saying.
HS: That is incredible that women get paid the same amount as men in the fire department. Wow. Well we have some room for improvement for women’s athletes.
(Solo looks through SR’s newspaper clippings from 1980)
HS: What do we got here?!
SR: So when I came into the Seattle Fire department in the 1980, the local Seattle newspaper did a story on women in the fire service and they picked me and put me on the cover. I was 26 years old.
HS: This is a huge article, wow.
SR: Down on 4th avenue, on 4th and Spokane, there is a fire station down there with a big tower, that’s us hanging off the tower.
HS: Incredible. Did you play sports growing up?
SR: You know, I did not. I swam when I was a kid but it was before Title IX. I didn’t really have the opportunities that kids have now. But I’ll tell you what, women in sports, whatever ages, all the way up to college are enabling fantastic candidates to be firefighters.
HS: So you’re telling me I have a career post sports?!
HS: How was the work for you?
SR: Well it’s very physical, and I’m small. Six feet tall and 200 pounds is the perfect firefighter. There aren’t a lot of women who are six feet who want to weigh 200 pounds. But I’m 5’8’’ and 150 pounds and I was able to do everything that I had to do. Basically you have to be able to throw 100 pounds around in any direction.
HS: I think I might be able to do that with you guys.
SR: (laughs) Like I said, young women and girls who are athletes are great candidates for the fire department. Plus, the whole team mentality, team spirit, leadership; it’s all tied together.
HS: So you continue to work in a team environment. That is awesome.
SR: Yeah, you learn a lot. You learn how to work on a firefighting team by working on a soccer team.
HS: And I would love to hear some of your stories and things you went through, like maybe discrimination.
SR: Yeah. When I got to the fire department, fire stations didn’t have facilities for women so everything was makeshift. Our locker rooms were closets that they threw a couple of metal lockers in. They’d section off one bathroom for us to use and guys had four bathrooms.
HS: I was reading that even the suits didn’t fit properly.
SR: Yes, clothes didn’t fit right and the gloves were too big. But too bad because that’s all we had and we had to go and do the job. But it’s all changed and these kids coming in today totally have that figured out.
HS: Hats off to you.
SR: Right back at you. And thank you for all of your hard work. I’m glad I was able to do this.
HS: Thank you for being here and I hope you enjoy our training today.