Brenda Berkman was among a group of women who sued New York City’s fire department for sex discrimination in 1982. They won and she became one of the city’s first female firefighters
Brenda Berkman is known as a pioneering firefighter. Born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1951, she studied history before qualifying as a lawyer. When, in 1977, new legislation forced the New York Fire Department to open up to women, she sat the entrance tests. After passing the written examination, she failed the physical and sued the fire department on the grounds that it had been altered specifically to exclude women. When she won, Berkman left her job as an attorney and went to work as a firefighter, staying for 25 years and being promoted to captain. She attended on 9/11. Berkman founded United Women Firefighters and was the first openly gay professional firefighter in the US.
Her story features in a book that is designed to inspire a new generation of girls: The Female Lead.
“My mother couldn’t believe it when I became a firefighter. I’d spent two years in grad school studying history, and three years at law school and I was working as an attorney. That’s what I gave up to do a job that required just a high-school diploma.
I was a law student, married, living in New York and working on cases with my father-in-law’s firm. We represented women police officers who were suing the police for discrimination, and we were handling a case for the New York City firefighters. At that time women couldn’t even apply. All the firefighters I knew loved their jobs, which you certainly can’t say about lawyers.
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I’ve always wanted to help people and that’s what the fire department does – when people are at their most desperate, they call us. It doesn’t matter if the call comes in the middle of the night, in a tsunami, or from a poor neighbourhood where no one speaks English – the firefighters go. So when the law changed to force the fire department to open its doors to women, I applied.
I studied and trained. You have to know something about construction, building design, electricity, water – you never know what you’re going to encounter. When I turned up to take the written exam, the men were quite hostile. It’s hard to perform when people think you’re a nut. I’d always played sports, I’d run marathons and I worked out. I trained for the physical examination like crazy, carrying my husband up and down the stairs, running, chopping wood.
It was clear to me that my score wasn’t being kept properly. They weren’t crediting me. The exam had been changed and wasn’t measuring actual physical abilities. Not one of the 90 women who showed up to take it passed.
When I turned up to take the written exam, the men were quite hostile. It’s hard to perform when people think you’re a nut
I thought there had to be one woman in New York who was capable of being a firefighter.
I talked to Bella Abzug [a feminist activist] and to a lawyer at NYU, my law school, and we went to see the man who was in charge of examinations for the fire department. He laughed in our faces.
So I decided to file a lawsuit. That entailed testifying under oath that if I won I would quit practising the law and take the job; otherwise the case would have been thrown out. Five years after I took the exam, we proved that it was not job-related and about 40 of us entered the fire department’s academy.
I knew that wasn’t going to be the end of it and the harassment got worse. I had death threats. I was followed. The instructors were free to do whatever they could get away with to make the women quit or get injured or fail. Just a few of us graduated on time. In the firehouse, the torture started all over again. I had formed the United Women Firefighters and been elected president when I was still in the academy. They didn’t like that I was advocating for women, they didn’t like lawyers, they didn’t like that I wasn’t from New York and they thought I was Jewish because I was married to a Jewish man.
I trained for the physical examination like crazy, carrying my husband up and down the stairs, running, chopping wood
They ostracised me. They wouldn’t eat with me, they drained my air tank, they messed with my protective gear. At the end of my probationary period they fired me and another woman, the two most physically fit in the whole group and the two who were most vocal. I had to fight another lawsuit but I was reinstated and got promoted.
Some of the men came to respect me and some changed their minds about me. If I had discovered I was not able to do the job, I would not have stayed a firefighter. But I loved it and I was inspired by those women police officers I’d worked with as a lawyer, by leading feminists and by the people I’d learned about in history who had struggled for social justice in the suffragettes or the civil rights movement. My parents, too, had always done things to help in the community, at church or volunteering at hospital.
As I got older I started to find that I was attracted to women. I am still very good friends with my ex-husband. I really like men. Initially, I was not willing to come out. I was already dealing with so much, simply as a woman. But to become a White House Fellow [a programme that takes leaders in their fields to Washington DC for a year as assistants to senior White House staff] I had to go through an investigation. So I was out as a lesbian that year in DC and then when I came back I found I didn’t need approval as much. Some people harassed me because of my sexual orientation but some people had harassed me because I was married to a Jewish guy.
Any firefighter who tells you they’re not scared is not telling the truth. As you get older and you’re in charge of people, you feel responsible, whether you’re working that day or not; 9/11 was off the scale of all that. I honestly thought I was going to die and I was very anxious about the people who were with me. We’d gone from our homes with no equipment because it had been sent on the fire trucks. I got caught in the collapse of a 47-storey building at 5.20 in the afternoon – the third to go, which no one remembers. Living or dying was a matter of luck – who was working, in what area, who ran in what direction.
We were airbrushed from history. The narrative went back to the need to be saved by men
It was hard afterwards, because who knew women were there? There were still relatively few of us – only 10 more in the New York City Fire Department than when I won in 1982 – so the odds were that none of us would be killed. But we were airbrushed from history. The narrative went back to the need to be saved by men.
I was sexually assaulted in the fire department. I lost friends who didn’t want to be involved with someone so controversial. But I also made friends. I didn’t become a firefighter to win a popularity contest. I did a job I loved for 25 years and I still mentor and advocate for women firefighters. I think I’ve been blessed.
I didn’t become a firefighter to win a popularity contest. I did a job I loved for 25 years and I still mentor and advocate for women firefighters
My favourite object? My fire helmet. It’s the first one I had, with my captain’s badge on the front. A machine replicated the shape of your head and built the helmet exactly. There were no chinstraps then. It’s got a big dent in it from when something hit me on the head, so it probably prevented me from being seriously injured. It’s damaged but it keeps going and it represents to me the value of doing things that matter despite the dangers and the setbacks. I would never have believed, as a girl, that I was going to become a firefighter. It represents the struggles of my adult life. It’s me.”
The Female Lead by Edwina Dunn with photography by Brigitte Lacombe is published by Ebury Press in hardback, £30.
The Female Lead interviews were conducted by Marian Lacombe, Rosanna Greenstreet, Geraldine Bedell, Hester Lacey.
To watch The Female Lead documentaries or nominate a UK school to receive a free copy of the book and teaching materials, visit www.thefemalelead.com
Featured image: Brenda Berkman, photographed by Brigitte Lacombe
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