First Woman Firefighter

By Maggie Lautenslager

Photograph: FDNY Capt. Brenda Berkman stands outside the firehouse of Engine 204 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Tina Fineberg/AP Images)

To be a New York City firefighter is one of the most heroic careers a person can have. It is also one of the most dangerous, especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. So is it too dangerous for women? People used to think so.

“It didn’t matter if you were an Olympic athlete or if you were 6’ 7” tall and the strongest woman on earth—it didn’t matter,” said Brenda Berkman, the first woman to become a member of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY).

Until 1977, women were not allowed to apply for jobs as firefighters in New York City. It wasn’t until 1982 that women finally passed the physical exam. Berkman, who retired last fall from the FDNY, filed a lawsuit against the city that year, arguing that the exam discriminated against women. She charged that some of the tougher requirements were unnecessary for the job. She won the lawsuit and was one of 47 women who passed a revised physical exam. 

But that was just the beginning of her struggle. Many of the male firefighters and New York City residents did not want women in the department. Berkman was seen as the leader of the female firefighters and faced years of harassment and abuse. 

“The idea that men hated me so much that they might leave me in a burning building by myself, that they drained my air tank, that they phoned death threats to my house, that they followed me around on the street and threatened me—that was scary,” Brenda said as she remembered all the things she had to deal with in those days.

But Brenda stuck to her job. She admitted that it was very difficult for the first few years but she refused to let the people and negative comments drive her out of the department. She loved her job and feels great that she got the chance to open doors for others and to change history for the better. 

“I don’t think of myself as just opening the door for girls and women,” she told Scholastic News. “I opened doors for everyone. I think of myself as expanding the idea of how wrong gender stereotypes are for boys and girls.”

Having role models is important. Children need someone to look up to and admire Berkman says. She had many role models, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Eleanor Roosevelt. A tennis player while growing up, Brenda especially admired 1970s tennis great, Billie Jean King. King successfully fought for female tennis players to be paid the same amount of money as men for tournaments. She also fought for the women to have their own league. Coincidentally, King’s father was a firefighter.

March is Women’s History Month, and Brenda firmly believes that studying women’s history is important to our lives. It teaches us things about our country that textbooks don’t, she says, especially the fact that both men and women worked hard to make America great. 

She also has advice for kids who some day may be in the position to change history or open a door for other people. “You have to believe in yourself and not be afraid to try things just because somebody tells you that you shouldn’t be doing that,” she said.

If you want to learn more about women and firefighting, go to the Women in Fire Service website.

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