In the struggle for women's equality, sometimes it's the littlest things that count. Like having a restroom of their own.
When she became Los Angeles County's first female firefighter in 1983, Cindy Barbee found that the department's restrooms and dormitories were designed for men.
Thanks largely to her efforts, the department not only pledged to create facilities for women, but it also revised its grooming standards--including a prohibition on long hair--and agreed to design more female-friendly uniforms.
For her contributions to women's rights, Barbee was honored as one of 10 women of the year Monday by the County Commission for Women. Other recipients included Assistant Dist. Atty. Sharon Matsumoto, the D.A.'s highest-ranking female, and Sylvia Drew Ivie, executive director of T.H.E. Clinic for Women in Los Angeles.
But perhaps more than any other, Barbee demonstrated that the fight for equality is waged not just in corporate boardrooms and political arenas. Sometimes the most important battlegrounds are everyday places.
"Not having access to a restroom where you work is awful," Barbee said. "Trying to herd out 10 males to use the bathroom is very difficult."
Barbee said her athletic background made her a natural fit for firefighting. She recalled watching firefighters train on campus while she was a UCLA undergraduate studying kinesiology.
"I used to think, gosh, I know I'm smarter than that guy. Then I'd see him step off the truck and I'd think, gosh, I'm taller and stronger than him too," said the 5-foot, 8-inch Barbee.
After serving as a firefighter, paramedic and engineer for 13 years, Barbee was promoted to captain in 1996, one of only two women with that title in the department.
While many of Monday's award winners have had their share of recognition--Barbee was even the subject of a 1986 TV movie--many agreed that being named woman of the year was a special distinction.
"I've gotten many awards through the years," said 85-year-old Estelle Busch, executive director of Synthaxis Theater Company and a founder of Women in Theater in Los Angeles. But this one was special, she said, because "it's women recognizing other women."
But amid the celebratory atmosphere, state Controller Kathleen Connell offered some sobering remarks, reminding her audience that the struggle is far from over.
"It would be very seductive for me to say 'We've come a long way,' " Connell said. "But we have not come far enough."
Connell stressed that her election and the political triumphs of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are exceptions. Women account for only nine Senate seats and just 13% of the House of Representatives, Connell said. And of the country's 25 largest cities, only San Diego has a female mayor.
Similarly, Barbee pointed out that of the 1,300 or 1,400 county firefighters hired since she joined the force, only 14 were women.
That's not to say progress hasn't been made. In her acceptance remarks, Barbee related a telling anecdote about her nephew Billy, who had accompanied her on more than one visit to the firehouse.
"His grandma asked him, 'So Billy, do you want to be a firefighter when you grow up?' " Barbee recalled. "And he said, 'Oh no! That's for girls.' "