116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — One of Iowa City’s two female firefighters is suing the city for gender and sexual orientation discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Sadie McDowell, who has been on unpaid leave since 2021, said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Johnson County District Court she has experienced “inappropriate sexist, sexual and racist comments,” as well as unwanted sexual contact and embarrassing situations, like someone stealing her pants while she was in the shower.
“Throughout her ten-plus years of employment, Sadie heard male firefighters and fire officers make sexually inappropriate comments nearly every single day,” the 19-page lawsuit states.
McDowell’s complaints about the incidents did not result in a change, the lawsuit states. Instead, she was passed over for a promotion and her supervisor demeaned diversity training as “Sadie’s thing,” the suit claims.
The city denied McDowell’s claims in a statement Thursday.
“The City of Iowa City is committed to supporting the rights of all employees and creating a safe, inclusive, and respectful work environment. These are allegations only. The City denies the claims contained within the lawsuit and intends to fully and vigorously defend itself in court. Due to the ongoing litigation, the City will have no further comment.”
Among specific allegations in the lawsuit:
- “Male firefighters and managers repeatedly played the game ‘F--- Marry Kill,’ in which participants had to chose whether they would prefer to ‘f---,’ ‘marry,’ or ‘kill’ particular women.“
- “In the summer of 2017, a male firefighter subjected Sadie to unwanted and nonconsensual kissing and sexual groping. He slapped her rear end. He propositioned her and suggested they participate in a threesome with his girlfriend.”
- When McDowell confronted the man about his actions, he “responded that the incident was Sadie’s fault, explaining ‘I couldn’t help myself because your body is just too sexy’.”
- “Male firefighters told Sadie that she had ‘the hottest wife in the Department’.”
- “During her first year of employment, someone entered the women’s bathroom while Sadie was showering and absconded with her pants.”
- “Male firefighters entered and used bathrooms designated for women. After a female medic complained about men using the women’s bathroom,” a male lieutenant called her a derogatory term.
- “After the Department made a minor change to the entrance exam for hiring, one Captain (now a Battalion Chief) complained that change ‘lowered standards’ for the sake of ‘diversity’.“
Saying she has developed mental health conditions including depression and stress-related disorders because of the incidents, McDowell is seeking a jury trial.
Iowa City fire has 64 sworn staff, which include rank-and-file firefighters and leadership. McDowell is one of only two women. The other is Janet Vest, who Iowa City hired as a firefighter in 1990, Little Village reported.
There still is a significant gender gap in the nation’s fire service, which women making up just 8 percent of 1.08 million firefighters in the United States in 2019, according to the most recent research by the National Fire Protection Association.
About 13 percent of all law enforcement officers in the United States are women, USA Today reported in 2021.
Many fire departments require potential applicants to pass a rigorous physical test that involves climbing stairs and crawling with heavy loads. But some agencies have placed greater emphasis on aerobic fitness, stamina and using your body and experience to solve specific tasks, FireRescue1 reported.
Iowa City in March named Scott Lyon as the new fire chief. Lyon, previously a firefighter in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, succeeded John Grier, Iowa City’s fire chief from 2013 until February. Grier retired in 2021 after nearly 30 years with the department.
The fire department made national news in 1979, when leaders there would not let Linda Eaton, the agency’s first female firefighter, breastfeed her baby during breaks at the station.
Fellow firefighters and their wives said it wasn’t fair Eaton could spend private time with a family member on her shift when the same privilege wasn’t extended to wives and other children, Little Village reported in 2015.
Eaton lost a discrimination lawsuit against the city in 1981.
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