Was a Virginia firefighter humiliated by co-workers online before she died?

By Petula Dvorak

The trolls were horrid to her while she was alive. And they continued to be awful after her death.

Fairfax County firefighter Nicole Mittendorff, 31, killed herself in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, the state medical examiner concluded. But even after the search for her was over, after her body was identified and memorial candles began to burn, the cyberbullies - who claimed they were her fellow firefighters - kept scorching Mittendorff online.

If these trolls are actually members of her firehouse family, then Mittendorff becomes another example of a new form of workplace harassment. Instead of happening in the office, it happens publicly online.

There is an investigation at Mittendorff's firehouse to find out who posted the vicious online attacks and whether they played a role in her suicide.

"We at Fairfax Fire and Rescue are aware of the posts and are looking into the matter. I assure you that my department can not and will not tolerate bullying of any kind," Fairfax County Fire Chief Richard Bowers wrote in a public statement Saturday.

"We will thoroughly investigate this matter and take any appropriate actions needed."

Mittendorff's case offers a chilling window into the persistent harassment women encounter on a daily basis online and at work. In fact, those two forms of ugliness appear to be merging.

It means sexual harassment isn't just lone-wolf bosses pawing at a secretary or men disparaging female co-workers at the water cooler. It can happen from a home computer and devastate a woman's reputation and career.

"It seems to be a newer thing, doing this online," said Angela Hughes, a Baltimore County fire captain who is also president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Medical Services.

"Cyberbullying on social media outlets is a new form of harassment."

Her group gets frequent requests for help from firefighters who believe they are being harassed, threatened or mistreated because of their gender. But recently, the group has seen more online bullying, including some Facebook pages that actively harass female firefighters.

The problem, she said, is a firehouse fosters a culture of toughness, of not needing help. And too often, harassment goes on because it's against the culture to ask for help.

Online harassment often gets directed at public-facing women on social media and by online commenters all the time.

The women of WGN, a television station in Chicago, recently took on their abusers when they read some of the nastiest emails, tweets and Facebook posts - attacks on their weight, their voices, their faces.

"Keep shoving food down that pie-hole of yours," morning anchor Robin Baumgarten said, quoting one message. "It shuts up that annoying donkey braying noise you make when you talk."

And we've seen it in Gamergate, where women in the video-game world are continually blasted online. That scandal started with feminist video-game reviewer Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a university speaking engagement two years ago because one of her many persistent and vulgar online harassers threatened a mass shooting if she spoke. And recently it included Zoe Quinn, a video-game developer who was smeared online with death threats and lurid details about her sex life by other gamers and an ex-boyfriend who didn't like her game. From A to Z, they get hazed.

I know. I am on the receiving end of the onslaught daily.

Here's a gem I got during a week when I wrote about a neighborhood bone marrow drive and Planned Parenthood:

"Hey Petula, you [profanity] ugly [profanity]," he wrote in a Facebook message. "Too bad your mother did not have an abortion."

I Googled him. He's an older income tax specialist living on Long Island who likes to post inspirational quotes and pictures of himself on his Facebook page.

He's not a co-worker, just a foul-mouthed jerk trying to humiliate me for what I do for a living.

This brand of workplace harassment operates outside the world of those surveys, workshops and seminars that company lawyers make everyone take, which do nothing to reduce sexism, but only exist to thwart lawsuits in case a caveman boss demands sex for a promotion.

Even if the trolls ripping Mittendorff apart online didn't work with her, those posts were up there to shame her for her career choice and belittle her within her career.

April 20: Steven Mittendorff speaking about his wife's disappearance. Standing next to him is the sister of the missing woman. Photo / Washington Post / Justin Jouvenal
April 20: Steven Mittendorff speaking about his wife's disappearance. Standing next to him is the sister of the missing woman. Photo / Washington Post / Justin Jouvenal

This subversive yet simultaneously very public sexual harassment is becoming increasingly common. A Pew Research Center survey in 2014 found that 1 in 4 young women has been stalked online - and about as many have been sexually harassed or physically threatened.

We know women still face on-the-job harassment in male-dominated fields: the military, law enforcement, science, the tech sector. Even the women who work for the National Park Service have offered horror stories.

And it's especially prevalent in firefighting, where I found case after case - in Rhode Island, Arizona, Utah, Florida - of women winning sexual harassment cases against their departments in just the past couple of years.

In federal reports, congressional testimony, courtroom testimony, personal essays and formal complaints, we hear the same story. Women continue to be harassed, belittled, passed over and manipulated by their male co-workers or bosses.

And those happened on the job.

What happens online?

Too often, women get told to just "ignore those guys, they're losers anyhow" or "it's online, what do you care?" or to "shake it off."

Nope. It matters, it hurts, it means something. And it has to stop.

I'd say, "Ask Nicole Mittendorff how this feels." But we can't.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Canterbury Support Line: 0800 777 846

- Washington Post

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