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Women's History Month reflections: Heather Provencio

To mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Inside the Forest Service has asked women across the agency to share their reflections about that landmark legislation. This is the first in the series.

Portrait photo: Heather Provencio in uniform in front of American and Forest Service flags.
Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio, Kaibab National Forest

With this being a presidential election year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the suffragist movement, the 100-year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and how far women have come in the Forest Service. Last night I pulled out a speech my great-grandmother, Nellie Cooper, wrote and delivered in 1888 on women’s equal rights. I’m grateful she had the courage to speak out and bring attention to the topic in a time when that was unacceptable. I credit that courage and tenacity not only to her internal character, but to the unconditional support and encouragement she received from her parents. They celebrated Nellie’s strong character and loved her for who she was.

I experienced that same unconditional support from my father, who instilled in me that I could do anything I set out to do and not to be hindered by what society told me I should be. While my father worked for the Forest Service in Research, it never dawned on me to work for the agency. But I had a friend in college who told me tales from his summers fighting fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves, and it piqued my interest, so I applied for that first job.

When my temporary job in archaeology came to a close and the Forest Service reached out and said, “Come work for us,” I semi-reluctantly took the job, feeling guilty that I wasn’t working in the field I’d just trained four years to be in.

I was so ill-prepared that first season, going to K-mart to look for “work boots with 8-inch leather uppers and a Vibram sole.” I hopped on a Greyhound and asked the FMO if he would pick me up and drive me out to the ranger station. As I got off the bus in Winslow, Arizona, I thought, where are all the trees? It wasn’t until we started off for my new home that I realized what I’d gotten myself into with no car; I would be 45 minutes from the nearest town. If only they’d had the Women in Wildfire Bootcamps that we have today!

While I was the only woman in fire on both the district and my forest that year, I felt welcomed and found myself on a crew of guys who wanted to see me succeed and didn’t treat me much differently than anyone else. They even offered me rides to town so that I could pick up groceries. All it really took to be hooked on a career in the Forest Service, though, was getting on that first fire. I knew I wanted to work for the agency as long as possible.

The year was 1985, and I remember being curious about other women in the agency. While I loved the crew, I really longed to work with a few other women by the end of that first summer. I recall being told that the neighboring district had just hired one of the agency’s first female district rangers.

Reflecting back, I realize I tried hard that first summer to “be one of the guys,” to pull my weight in a “man’s job,” and I was proud of the fact that I pretty much did. Watching my two daughters more recently, as they worked with conservation corps and as a firefighter with the Forest Service, I saw them face some of the same doubt by others about whether they could do the job, but they tackled their jobs as who they are, strong women. For them, it was all about being capable women and bringing unique contributions to jobs they felt passionately about.

I know the Forest Service is a healthier place today. Seeing so many women leading our agency at the highest levels is inspiring. I’ve noticed the more balanced leadership of both male and female styles has made us better able to support and guide our employees as well as serve our diverse communities and partners.

As far as we’ve come though, we have a ways to go. We have far fewer women in fire than is desirable, and we have even fewer in leadership roles in fields such as politics and business. I think that many citizens in this country still don’t believe that women truly have a place in those fields. I don’t take my ability to vote for granted and will exercise that right, and I’ll do what I can to encourage women to join the Forest Service in all fields. I think Nellie would be proud of how far women have come and the professions her great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughters work in. I owe it to my daughters and grandchildren to continue pushing for the full equality of women that Nellie fought so hard for.

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