In his election campaign Joe Streany makes much of his 38-year service as a volunteer firefighter and his stint as a Fire Chief. What voters may not know—or remember—is that when Joe Streany had the chance to uphold the civil rights of women, he failed miserably. It was a performance that raises serious questions about his qualifications to serve as Trustee.
The story is buried in yellowed old newspaper clippings and microfilm. To research the incident we must travel back in time to August of 1981. An attempt by the all-volunteer Croton Fire Department to overcome its daytime shortages of manpower by using members of an Explorer Scout Post to create a junior fire brigade exploded into a veritable firestorm. Joe Streany, First Assistant Chief of the Croton Fire Department, disregarding the state’s equal rights law, arbitrarily decided to deny four young women the right to participate in the program.
Sexism Rears Its Ugly Head
The four 15-year-old young women, who said they wanted to join the department as firefighters when they were older, then charged the Croton Volunteer Fire Department with “sexism” for unceremoniously ejecting them from a youth fire-training program without cause.
Their protest gained support from the American Civil Liberties Union and caused a stir in Croton. Joe Streany expressed concern that the department’s fund-raising efforts would be hampered as a result. He seemed not to have anticipated the uproar his action would create or even that he had broken the law.
The training program was offered to young men and women by an Explorer Scout Post and was backed by a committee headed by Joe Streany. Apparently, his backing only extended to young men. He claimed some of the committee members had exceeded their authority and had gone too far by admitting the young women. This was a peculiar remark, especially coming from someone who is the father of three daughters.
An Eyebrow-Raising Admission
“If I take these four young girls, I’d probably lose 10 firemen. Our men are pretty much male chauvinists,” said First Assistant Chief Joe Streany in an eyebrow-raising admission hardly complimentary of his men. “For the old-timers, the Fire Department is their hobby and their pastime as well as their civic duty. They don’t want kids hanging around the firehouse.
“It took us two years to persuade them even to have boys. This isn’t a youth group,” he added. “We’re trying to train firefighters for the future. It’s inevitable that we’ll have girls in the program someday, but we wanted to get this thing off the ground first, just with boys, and see how it works out.”
The program was one of several in Westchester that volunteer fire companies embraced in an effort to relieve daytime shortages and to prepare potential volunteers for fire service. It is not uncommon in some parts of the county for a community to have shortages of volunteers on weekdays because of the number of firefighters who are employed elsewhere.
The young women, all daughters of local firemen, joined the post in June of 1981, answering an announcement that “youths” between 14 and 18 would be trained in firefighting theory, equipment operation, first aid, traffic control and fire prevention. At their third meeting on July 16, 1981, they were emphatically informed by a delegate from the Fire Department that it didn’t want women, and they were asked to leave.
Leave Quickly and Don’t Make a Fuss
The expulsion was conducted in heavy-handed fashion. “They told us to leave [the firehouse] quietly and not make a fuss, and they gave us back our five dollars,” said Kelly Flood. “The meeting began at 7:30, and they kicked us out at 8:15. We were upset, and we just walked around town trying to calm down.”
The four young women went to see Susan Shepler, one of ten female dispatchers already in the Croton Fire Department, whose membership then was exclusively male. An angry Susan Shepler contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. One of the ACLU Westchester attorneys, Natalie Hertz, wrote to the Village Attorney, reminding him that state law prohibited fire departments from discriminating against any member on the basis of sex.
Chief Streany claimed that John LaFata, head of the Westchester-Putnam Explorer Scouts program, had told the Croton Fire Department committee it could avoid having young women as members by using the absence of a female adviser as the basis for the exclusion. Mr. LaFata denied making any such statement.
Making the Female Dispatchers Angry
The young women said that after they suggested that perhaps one of the female dispatchers could be their adviser, they were told by a member of the Fire Department committee that “the dispatchers are not part of the department—they are their own little thing.” This unfeeling remark upset and infuriated the female dispatchers. Rose Wojnar, a dispatcher whose daughter, Diane, was one of the four young women, exploded, “I thought all along that I was a member of the department. We’re covered by Croton Fire Department insurance. We do a service, and it means they don’t have to take the firemen off the trucks to do the dispatching.”
Kelly, Diane and the other two young women, Laurie Fath and Kristin Lockwood, wrote a letter of protest to two local newspapers, the Croton-Cortlandt News and the Ossining Citizen Register. Their mothers took matters into their own hands and had a flier printed that they distributed at the Croton Fire Department’s major fund-raising event, its annual bazaar. The flier told attendees bluntly, “Your attendance here is contributing to the support of an organization that discriminates against children because of their sex.”
Peace at Last
The widely publicized charges of “sexism” and the furor that ensued caused the Croton Fire Department to backpedal quickly and to relent. A year later, after completing the required course of training, the same four young women who had fought their exclusion so determinedly were admitted to the Croton Fire Department as junior members. At a ceremony held at Croton’s Grand Street Firehouse on July 27, 1982, Joe Streany, who had been elected chief of the department in April, presented them with official Fire Department badges. He had enjoyed a meteoric rise from rookie to chief in the short space of twelve years.
After the ceremony, Chief Streany was forced to eat crow. Making a calculated effort to save face, he said of the new firefighters, “They are a part of the family now. We couldn’t have had any better cooperation or response from both the department and the Explorers.” Then he added, as if his opposition to the young women’s participation had never been displayed, “The program has already shown itself to be an asset to the community, as it was intended.”