Back in 1981, there were a lot of jobs women just didn’t do, because, you know, they were women.
Also back in 1981, there were a few women who were changing the assumptions about what women could and couldn’t do. In Lawrence, Lexie Engleman became one of those women when she was hired as one of Lawrence’s first female firefighters.
Another woman hired at the same time stayed on the job only a short time, but Engleman made it her career. Earlier this week, a story announced her retirement after 29 years with the Lawrence Fire Department, now Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical.
When she was hired, many observers, including some fellow firefighters wondered if a woman could handle the job. Women were breaking down barriers in many fields, but could — or should — a physically demanding career like firefighting be one of them?
Engleman was up to the challenge. She was a former physical education teacher who later also trained as a body builder. After passing the department’s written, physical and oral exams, she was offered the job. It apparently was a perfect fit.
She worked her way through the ranks and will retire on Saturday as a captain. She has been responsible for a shift and crew of six firefighters at Station No. 2. She acknowledged that male firefighters seemed apprehensive in 1981 about having a female on the team but it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out “that it wasn’t a big deal.”
Looking back on it, one of the keys to Engleman’s success probably was that she didn’t become a firefighter to prove a point. She couldn’t find a job in her field and was working as a waitress. She saw an ad seeking firefighters and decided to give it a try.
“I was there for a job,” Engleman told the Journal-World in 1997. “I wasn’t there to make a statement.”
When Engleman retires, the department will still have four female firefighters. Being a firefighter isn’t for everyone, male or female, but for Engleman, it was “what I was meant to do.”
Allowing anyone to pursue that kind of passion shouldn’t be about gender. Although Engleman apparently didn’t see herself as a pioneer, she set an example that helped prove that point.