Interview with Anita Arnum
BY BEATRICE MAXWELL '25
When sirens wail in the streets of Acton, one can rest assured that Anita Arnum is working on her never-ending quest to keep the town safe. Now the first female Deputy Chief of the Acton Fire Department, Arnum has gone above and beyond for all the communities she has served throughout her career. However, her immense dedication and subsequent success cannot be recognized without acknowledging the struggles she faced as a woman in a male-dominated field.
After studying chemistry and molecular biology at UMass Amherst, Arnum worked as a molecular biologist for Integrated Genetics, a local biomedical company. Although she loved working there, she longed for a more fast-paced career, so she left the company and became a Boxborough firefighter in 1989.
Arnum explained that along with the faster pace, “[she likes] helping people [and] trying to make things better.” Her passion for helping others inspired her to also become a hazardous materials technician, helping improve the community in another way. Arnum furthers her service by working at Emerson Hospital as a paramedic, and she has served in an urban search-and-rescue team to assist during major disasters. She has excelled in many areas and served multiple communities, but her success has not come easily—especially given persisting gender norms.
The firefighting department is extremely male-dominated. According to the National Fire Protection Association, less than five percent of full-time firefighters across the country are women, placing women at a large minority in this career field. Regardless, Arnum and other women managed to thrive in their respective environments. During Arnum’s time as a call firefighter in Boxborough, she met and befriended another female firefighter. Arnum said that her friend did not let men make her decisions for her: she always jumped in on the hard work and, according to Arnum, “could do everything.”
But even with Arnum’s dedication and ability, her gender has held her back in the field. Arnum explained there were promotions she should have gotten but were instead given to a man. Arnum described how “[women] have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good” but “once you've proven that you know the job and that you can do the job … everything works much smoother." Though Arnum contended with gender discrimination throughout her career, the perseverance and exemplary ability she has displayed throughout her years of service have allowed her to rise through the department’s ranks.
Although Arnum has faced both explicit and implicit sexism throughout her career, she has noticed improvement: “I think not only my colleagues within the department but also the public has gotten used to the fact that women can be in this field and do this job.” Arnum, along with many others, has paved a path for women in male-dominated careers. Women are now increasingly proving their limitless capabilities in the fields they are passionate about, regardless of conventional gender demographics. With her perseverance and passion, Arnum has helped and continues to help countless communities and people, all the while resisting gender stereotypes.