The first female firefighter in the British Commonwealth
Anne Barry has spent most of her adult life fighting fires. But in her biggest battle she blazed a trail of her own in 1981, when she became the first female firefighter in the Commonwealth.
It took three years of persistence and appeals to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Human Rights Commission and Members of Parliament before she was accepted into the fire service recruitment course.
Barry recalls the severe resistance to women joining the Fire Service, saying: “In their words, they said they weren’t going to have fire stations turned into beds of sin, that they weren’t going to have menstrual cycles on fire stations and they didn’t want women fainting at motor accidents.”
Working in the control room for the Auckland Fire Brigade, Barry was in her mid-20s when she decided she’d rather be out in the field, amongst the action. But she knew it would be a hard road ahead.
To give herself a head start and ensure she was more than amply qualified, she enrolled in a fire engineering degree. But still she was rejected, on the basis of height.
“I was an inch too short,” she recalls. Yet somehow there were dozens of male firefighters who were the same height or shorter than Barry.
“They had come in the back door being chiefs’ sons, deputies’ sons, etc,” she explains.
When that excuse failed to wash, the Fire Service rejected Barry again, claiming she had poor eyesight.
“Another letter came back saying my left eye was slightly weaker than my right eye, I had astigmatism.”
Barry sought a second, third and fourth opinion from other optometrists, all of whom confirmed her eyes were fine.
“It made me dig my heels in,” says Barry. “That’s why I fought, I was on this treadmill and I knew I was right and I’d eventually win.”
In 1978, she took her case to the Human Rights Commission, which spent three years battling the Fire Service before Barry was finally accepted into the recruitment course in 1981, becoming the first female firefighter in the Commonwealth.
But even after gaining entrance Barry’s struggle continued.
“There were men I knew through the communication centre who encouraged me to apply but stopped talking to me when I got the job – I guess they thought I wouldn’t get in.
“For the first three years I was forever trying to prove myself. I’d run as soon as the siren went to lift the heaviest thing.”
Today, there are more than 100 female firefighters in the New Zealand Fire Service. But Barry says she never set out to be a trailblazer.
“I did it for myself. It just happened to be that I’ve opened the door for other women. I didn’t mean to, it was a job I wanted to do,” explains Barry, who retired in 1999 after 22 years’ active service.
“I knew I was in the right, the Fire Service was wrong so I fought for it and won.”