Brenda Berkman was a third-year law student at NYU in 1977-78, when, for the first time, the New York City Fire Department allowed women to take the test to become firefighters. Berkman passed the written portion of the exam, but failed the physical fitness component—along with all 89 other women who tried. It was clear that the grueling physical test, which one official said was the most difficult the department had ever administered, was designed more to keep women out than to accurately assess job-related skills. Berkman approached NYU Law professor Laura Sager, an experienced litigator in the fields of employment law and sex discrimination who was then the head of the Women’s Rights Clinic here.
When requests for a fairer exam—and an inquiry on Berkman’s behalf from former Congresswoman and women’s rights leader Bella Abzug—fell on deaf ears at the FDNY (the chief of personnel for New York City “practically laughed in our face,” Berkman recalls), she asked Sager to represent her in what would become a contentious and highly publicized class-action lawsuit: Brenda Berkman, et al. v. The City of New York. Sager brought on the high-profile law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton as co-counsel, and finally, in 1982, a federal judge ruled that the test was indeed discriminatory, and a new one must be developed. That year, Berkman and about 40 other women entered the fire academy; when they graduated, they became the first female firefighters in the history of New York City.
“I had to testify that I if I won my lawsuit I would quit the practice of law and become a firefighter,” Berkman explains, “because the city was alleging that I was just some lawyer bringing this lawsuit as a kind of publicity stunt.” As time would tell, that couldn’t have been further from the truth: Berkman would serve the city for almost 25 years, retiring in 2006 at the rank of captain. She founded and became the first president of the United Women Firefighters, won the the Susan B. Anthony Award from the National Organization for Women, and was appointed a White House Fellow by President Bill Clinton. Her struggle is the subject of the PBS documentary Taking the Heat: The First Women Firefighters in New York City.
Now, Berkman’s papers—files from the lawsuit, photographs and records from the United Women Firefighters, and countless news clippings from the course of her remarkable, trailblazing career—are housed at NYU’s Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and there will be a special exhibit drawn from these on display through December 16, 2016 to commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
In the aftermath of that tragedy, which killed an incomprehensible 343 members of the FDNY in a single day, Berkman had to contend not only with the deaths of close friends and colleagues and catastrophic disarray within the ranks of the organization, but also with the painful sting of what she perceived as renewed sexism toward women working on the rescue and recovery efforts. Though three female first responders—Port Authority PD Captain Kathy Mazza, EMT Yamel Merino, and NYPD officer Moira Smith—died at Ground Zero, Berkman was dismayed to find that many accounts seemed to acknowledge only the heroism of “firemen” and “policemen.”
In news coverage, where Berkman said she expected to see an “inspiring story of how all of New York had pulled together on 9/11 and afterward to try and save and help people,” she found instead that women in that narrative were often “relegated to more traditional and stereotypical roles—as widows and nurses and volunteers.” There was little or no acknowledgement of the women like her, who as emergency responders were “doing exactly the same thing that the men were doing,” Berkman says. She remembers receiving calls from perplexed female firefighters from all over the country who tuned in to the news from New York, where 2,000 NYPD and Port Authority police officers joined more than 214 FDNY units in the rescue, and immediately wondered: Where are the women? Through the gendered lens of history being written in real time, Berkman recalls, women didn’t get to be “the heroes of 9/11, who rushed there, who stayed there, who did their jobs even at risk to their own lives.”
It’s an omission that Berkman has been working to correct in the many commemorations since then, and this September 13th at Tamiment she will lead a 15th anniversary roundtable discussion with other female first-responders as well as utility and construction workers who also worked for months at Ground Zero, often at risk to their own health.
Since her retirement, Berkman has been leading tours through the 9/11 Tribute Center (which employs survivors, family members of those killed, and first-responders as guides who share personal accounts of their experiences at the World Trade Center), though it’s still difficult for her to talk about that traumatic morning. She had taken September 11, 2001 off to volunteer for a local political candidate on Election Day, but soon joined other off-duty Brooklyn firefighters in heading directly to the World Trade Center, where the scene was dangerously chaotic, to say the least. “My main concern was not losing the guys who were with me,” Berkman told Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba for the book Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion. “I was in command of this group, and I had nobody to command me, and all I could think was, This is what Vietnam must have been like. You’re just out there in your little groups, and you’re left to fend for yourself. There was no structure. There was no organization. There was no equipment.”
As a 20-year veteran firefighter, Berkman had attended her share of line-of-duty funerals, but nothing could have prepared her—or the department—for a disaster of this magnitude. “It wasn’t just losing all these people at one time,” she recalls. “It was also people injured, people who retired, huge turnover—and then a lot of people who got promoted all at once. It was very disruptive to the organization and because we were so focused at first on the recovery effort down at the Trade Center that it was difficult to focus on other aspects of our emergency responsibilities. Fifteen years later, we still have these scars from 9/11, obviously. I think it will be generations before those disappear, if ever.”
And as for the lingering effects of the FDNY’s checkered history of sex discrimination? Progress is slow, but there are reasons to be hopeful, Berkman suggests. At the time of 9/11, there were only 25 female firefighters in the FDNY, down from the 40 who had joined in 1982. This was partly because many of that original group had retired—having stuck with the job despite discrimination, sexual harassment, threats, and even sabotages to their safety equipment early in their careers, Berkman marvels—and hardly any new women had been hired in the intervening years. After 9/11, the number crept up to about 30 and then plateaued before nearly doubling in the past couple of years. (There are now 52 women out of a force of about 10,500—or .5%. The national figure is less than 4%, though some individual departments have a much higher percentage of women.) The recent uptick in New York is due both to changes brought about following a successful race discrimination lawsuit by the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, Berkman says, and to the continuing advocacy of the United Woman Firefighters.
When asked where she found the courage to take on such a long and difficult fight, Berkman is philosophical. “I think that for women of my generation, having grown up in the 1950s, we’d reached a point where we were tired of of people saying to us, ‘You can’t do that because you’re a girl.’ We saw that women ahead of us had struggled to get women the right to vote, the right to practice law and practice medicine, the right to go to college and follow their dreams. We’d seen how other women ahead of us had really fought for gains that we were the beneficiaries of, so it didn’t make sense for me to give up just because some people were resisting change. I discovered that I not only could do the job, but also had a passion for it—I really enjoyed it.”
Standing up to injustice can be dangerous, Berkman acknowledges. She and another female firefighter, Zaida Gonzalez, who’d spoken of on-the-job harassment, were once fired by the FDNY for alleged “physical incompetence” before a judge ruled their dismissal retaliatory and they were reinstated. Not everyone can afford to risk losing their job, Berkman notes, but she believes it’s best to take a long view when you can:
“I think that girls and young women should know that while it may not always be easy, it’s valuable to not take no for an answer. It helps open the doors to others in the future, and it not only helps women and girls to have these stereotypes broken down—it helps boys and men too. Nobody, whether you're a boy or girl, should be forced into a box just because you happen to be born one gender or the other. I'm proud to have [helped to] offer the people of the City of New York a greater number—namely 50% of the population—to have as firefighters who can serve their communities.
“That's a big deal to me—that now women can also serve their communities in the same way that men have. I mean, why not?”
Hear Brenda Berkman lead a panel discussion, “Women 9/11 First Responders,” at NYU’s Tamiment Library & Wagner Labor Archives on the 10th floor of Bobst Library on September 13, 2016 from 6:00–8:00 pm. Additional participants will include NYPD Inspector Terri Tobin; EMS Captain Doreen Ascatigno; Regina Wilson, firefighter and the first woman President of the FDNY Vulcan Society; Sarinya Srisakul, firefighter and president of the United Women Firefighters; and Mary Carouba, an investigative social worker and co-author of the book Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion. Other women first responders will be part of the Q&A.