Brenda Berkman

Brenda Berkman

Firefighter

New York, NY

In a small way I was trying to challenge the stereotypes and fears that keep us from achieving our greatest potential.

In a small way I was trying to challenge the stereotypes and fears that keep us from achieving our greatest potential.

Prior to 1977 there was a quota for women firefighters in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) – and that quota was zero. No matter what your physical or mental capabilities, family tradition or firefighting expertise, if you had been born female you were not even allowed to apply to become an FDNY firefighter. When federal laws forced the FDNY to allow women to apply to take the firefighter entrance exam in 1977, I was in my mid-twenties, in my third and last year of law school and still searching for my life’s work.  I decided to train for and take the firefighter exam.

What followed that decision to try to enter the fire service were many instances of decision-making that went against every rule of common sense, the advice of family and friends, my education and society’s strictures about the “proper” roles for women. I had to decide to be the sole named class plaintiff in a major lawsuit challenging the FDNY’s discriminatory hiring practices, knowing that decision could (and did) make me a target for death threats, pornography, ridicule in the media, ostracism and much more. When I won my lawsuit five years later, I had to give up my practice of law and take a fifty percent pay cut to enter the FDNY.

After I went into the FDNY, I and many of the women who came on the job with me in that first generation of women firefighters were often shunned, ridiculed, physically threatened and even assaulted by some of our male co-workers. It is hard to explain to the general public – even other women – how hard it is to work in a hostile environment like the one many women firefighters have experienced, where our very survival depended on men who did not want women in the firehouse, who felt all women were naturally inferior to any man and who acted in ways that could result in physical harm to us, even death. Perhaps the closest analogies are to military women and women police officers.

Why would I be crazy enough to stay in the firehouse when – with my law degree and other advanced education – I had other employment options? One important reason was that I found out I loved firefighting – I loved helping people, the physical and mental challenges of the job, the need to constantly learn new things. I also came to realize I had reached a point in my life when I would no longer accept people telling me I couldn’t do something because I was a “girl.”  Just as importantly, because I was ostracized in my own organization, I reached outside of the FDNY and involved myself in many professional opportunities far beyond my own department and city. I found many ways to use my legal training and experience to support other people who were experiencing discrimination in their workplaces because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. I helped found and lead organizations for women in firefighting, making friendships all over the world. None of this would have been possible if I had followed the traditional career path of a male New York City firefighter.

Initially, some of the first women firefighters (and I put myself in this group) tried to out-macho the men. It’s not unusual for a token group – and we women were only 30 out of 10,000 firefighters – to try to be even rougher and tougher, take more risks than the men.  We felt we had to be twice as good and twice as “manly” (whatever that is) to prove women had the abilities and the guts to do this challenging and sometimes heroic work.  It was only as I learned more about firefighting and the fire service that I realized that the fire service would benefit from different perspectives. And that would happen only if we women brought our true selves to the job, not some fake stereotype.  The fire service needs women to bring their different perspectives, to keep the fire service from stagnating and to provide the best possible service to our communities.

While I undoubtedly made mistakes and took some wrong turns pursuing my passions for the fire service and for equal opportunities for women, I don’t regret taking the heat for advocating for change. In a small way I was trying to challenge the stereotypes and fears that keep us from achieving our greatest potential. If I could be a firefighter – you can be anything.

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