Negotiating Identity in a Gendered Firehouse Infrastructure: Female Firefighters’ Experience with Gender Separate and Gender Neutral Restrooms
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Fine Arts and Communication
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It is a basic fact of biology that everyone requires access to a restroom. Despite this basic biology, American public restrooms have been exemplars of differing types of discrimination (Anthony & Dufresne, 2007). Not only have they represented gender discrimination, favoring males, but also they have paralleled social discrimination among classes, races, levels of physical ability, and sexual preferences (Kira, 1976). The restriction of restrooms against various underprivileged or disenfranchised groups can reinforce marginalization (Kopas, 2012). In recent years, public restrooms have fueled new debates over discrimination in America. In particular, the infrastructure of changing firehouses reflects both the tradition of an all male fire service and the influx of a small number of women entering the service. In the United States, gender separation is the norm for public restrooms (Kopas, 2012). As one of the few remaining public spaces that are regularly and explicitly segregated by gender, restrooms are often experienced as sites of symbolic and physical exclusion by transgender and gender non-conforming people. For this reason, one focus of transgender activism in the United States has been safe access to public restrooms, often by advocating for “gender-neutral” configurations. Such opposition to the established norm of separation has sometimes elicited strong resistance (Kopas, 2012). In current feminist research, gender is seen not as something a person has, but rather something a person does. Rakow (1989) has argued that gender is a verb and more recently Butler (1999) characterizes gender as performance. Gender performance is inherently linked to power within an organization. The present study serves to investigate the experiences of female firefighters as they relate to gender performance and their work within the fire service. The fire service provides an opportunity to observe women in a male dominated workplace where coworkers live together. This study explores how and when women were drawn to the fire service, gendered issues of privacy, and experiences of women in relation to the facilities available. The purpose of this study was to produce a composite narrative of women’s experiences in the fire service in relation to the use of gender neutral or gender specific restroom facilities. This study sought to understand the experiences and perceptions of the participants. The researcher used a grounded theory approach to analyzing data. After a series of semi-structured interviews were conducted, data were systematically analyzed, and emerging themes were transformed into a composite narrative of women’s experiences within a firehouse. The result is expected to contribute to the overall understanding of women entering a male-dominated career path. Additionally, this research should expand previous scholarship on the relationship between infrastructure and gender performance.