Updated 03/19/2012 10:58 PM
Women's History Week: Pioneering Firewoman Brenda Berkman Fought To Make FDNY More Tolerant
There are now a record number of women signed up to take the city's test to become a firefighter, and NY1 launches its week-long celebration of Women's History with a profile of Brenda Berkman, who helped make it possible for women to join the FDNY. NY1's Jeanine Ramirez filed the following report.
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Brenda Berkman spent decades fighting. At first, the Brooklynite was a lawyer who was the sole plaintiff in a federal discrimination suit against the city for its refusal to hire women as firefighters.
"I won the lawsuit really four years after we filed it," says Berkman. "We didn't know if there would be any other women interested in taking the job."
In 1982, Berkman was one of 40 women who became the first female firefighters in New York City history. She still recalls the backlash.
"We thought that once we got into the fire academy that would be the end of the argument right there because you passed the test, right?" says Berkman. "But unfortunately, there was still a lot of resistance among firefighters. Protective gear was tampered with and men refused to speak or eat with their women co-workers."
Still, Berkman was promoted to lieutenant in 1994 and finally captain in 2002. Then in 2003, she helped rally to save the closing of firehouses.
Berkman retired in 2006. In her 26-year career, she was the first firefighter to be awarded a White House Fellowship, she founded the city's United Women Firefighters Association and she responded while off-duty to the World Trade Center on September 11th.
"I lost five people from my firehouse," she says.
Now, Berkman volunteers her time giving tours of the September 11th Memorial. She also creates 9/11-related artwork, like a print of the waterfalls called "Memorial Tears."
As for blazing a trail for women firefighters, she says there is still so much more work to be done.
"It's to the benefit of everyone, New York City, the fire service and the firefighters themselves to have women on the job," says Berkman.
Young girls can now grow up seeing role models on the fire trucks. At Girls Prep Charter School, there is a classroom named after Berkman.