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DRC/Caitlyn Jones

Denton women step up to serve

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare wrote of the character Hermia: "And though she be but little, she is fierce."

Like Hermia, Denton police Sgt. Rachel Fleming and Denton firefighter Tracy Whitten may have smaller frames than some of their male counterparts, but that doesn't mean they back down from a challenge.

As Women's History Month draws to a close, a handful of women have made their marks in the city's public service sector. Denton employs five female firefighters out of 165 in its operations division and 21 female police officers out of its 159 certified peace officers.

Whether a 19-year veteran like Fleming or a nearly two-year "rookie" like Whitten, both women have come to a similar conclusion about their role in a male-dominated field: Use your skills to your advantage.

"What I learned being a female was that rather than trying to be tough and outmuscle or maneuver male counterparts, I brought the most to the table just by being myself," Fleming said. "I'm more analytical and I think outside the box. I'm better at multitasking because I'm a mom. That's just a natural skill that a lot of women possess."

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Tracy Whitten has been a firefighter with the Denton Fire Department for nearly two years and recently founded the North Texas Women Firefighter organization.</span></p>DRC/Caitlyn Jones

Tracy Whitten has been a firefighter with the Denton Fire Department for nearly two years and recently founded the North Texas Women Firefighter organization.

DRC/Caitlyn Jones

Heeding the call

Whitten was in paramedic school when someone told her she should become a firefighter. The thought hadn't really crossed her mind, she said, because she always envisioned working in a hospital. 

Once she got the idea in her head, though, she couldn't shake it. She tagged along with Denton firefighters when they rode out on a call one day and met a woman who matched her 5-foot, 5-inch, 130-pound build.

"I saw her kick butt and do the job," Whitten said. "I was like, 'Tell me more!' I just didn't know I could do this when I was growing up."

She knew it would be tough. She would spend two-and-a-half years going through training. She would need to work out every day to stay in shape. She even would meet a few skeptics along the way.

"When I would tell people I wanted to be a firefighter, they would look me up and down and say, 'You're going to pull me out of a two-story building by yourself?'" Whitten said. "It was difficult to overcome a lot of the stereotypes, but I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else."

Fleming, on the other hand, took a more meandering path to become a public servant. 

Growing up within a military family, she always dreamed of being in law enforcement and majored in journalism in college, thinking it would be a good cover for a job with the Central Intelligence Agency, she said.

Soon, she became a young mother and said her main concern shifted to providing for her daughter. After holding a series of odd jobs by age 32, she decided it was time for a change.

"I took a look at my life and took an inventory of everything going on," Fleming said. "I said, 'You know what? I'm not being a good role model because I'm merely surviving. I'm not teaching my daughter what it means to be a strong woman.'"

She enrolled in the police academy, spending her days in class and her nights studying and taking care of her child. After she graduated, she took a job as a patrol officer with the Denton Police Department. Throughout her career, she has held roles as a community relations officer and detective. She was promoted to the position of sergeant last year and spends her shifts supervising her own group of police officers.

"Having younger officers is extremely rewarding," she said of her current position. "With my background, I was able to teach them ways of thinking, analyzing and problem-solving that they had never considered."

Doing the job

Both Whitten and Fleming have joined a select group of women nationwide who work in their industries.

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show out of the 300,000 firefighters working in the United States in 2014, 5.7 percent were women. The FBI estimated 11.6 percent of police officers working in 2015 were women.

Some attribute the lack of  women in these fields to a difference in physical stature and disposition between the genders.

Although physical strength plays a significant role on the job, Whitten said firefighters work in teams of two.

"It's not just me," she said. "I know myself. I wouldn't put myself in a position I wasn't comfortable with. I wouldn't endanger a patient because I think I'm Superwoman and can lift this person. If they're too heavy, I'm going to ask for help in the same way a man would."

Whitten's small size also can work to the team's advantage. She said she moves easier through cramped spaces and can squeeze into small holes if needed.

Fleming said long-held beliefs about men not fighting women often can work in the police department's favor.

A few years ago, she said, a man consistently gave male officers problems when he was arrested. He punched, kicked and bashed his head up against the walls of his cell. One night, Fleming noticed he still had a belt on and told him that she was coming in there to remove it.

"I told him to lay down on the ground and he did it immediately," she said. "I took off his belt, and as soon as I left, he started banging his head again. I asked him later why he didn't give me any trouble and he said, 'My momma raised me to never hit women.'"

Both women say they use their calm demeanor to de-escalate situations and help people cooperate with other firefighters or officers. 

Although most associate soothing personalities with women as a whole, Whitten said it's "oversimplifying" to assign levelheaded attitudes to a certain gender.

"I don't think that we can sit there and say, 'This is the way a man thinks and this is the way a female thinks,'" she said. "I think we all have unique things we bring to the table regardless of gender."

Finding support

Because they work in shifts, both women said some of the aspects of traditional female roles, like childcare, can become an obstacle.

"Trying to find someone to baby-sit your child all night long while you're on the street can be challenging," Fleming said.

Whitten said she's noticed a bit of a role reversal within the fire department because the men will have 48 hours off after their 24-hour shift.

"We'll see a lot of guys staying with the kids on their days off," she said. "Unfortunately, the childcare industry hasn't picked up on the fact that people don't just work Monday through Friday from 8 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.]."

Most departments, Denton included, also don't see many women move up in the ranks. 

Fleming is the second female sergeant at the Denton Police Department, following in the footsteps of  Joanie Housewright, who retired in 2008 as Denton's first female captain. Laura Behrens was named Denton's first female fire marshal in 2013 and Carey McAdoo was the first female firefighter promoted to the rank of Driver Operator in January.

"Oftentimes, women will leave law enforcement when they have a family or they'll be involved in a situation where they aren't the main breadwinner," Fleming said. "We have had numerous women start here, then leave. Not because the job was stressful or they were incapable, but because of their traditional position in the family."

For support outside of work, Whitten helped form the North Texas Women Firefighters nonprofit group to help recruit, educate and offer support to each other.

"We try to be a resource for women so that they can ask questions," she said. "We get to come up alongside them and say, 'Yeah, it's hard, but it's so worth it.'"

When they're on the clock, though, the women say their fellow firefighters and officers, both male and female, are like extended family. They also know their unique position makes them role models, especially for their fellow women.

"This is the kind of job where, if you don't have the mental and emotional toughness for it, don't get into it," Fleming said. "I have found that the world works in very strange ways and every time I think I've hit my wall, something happens that reminds me why I do this."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.