Brenda Berkman; The Pioneering NYC Female Firefighter

Written by Alannah Marsden

When we think about the people who put out fires and save people from burning buildings, a very similar image springs to everyone’s mind – firemen. Fire-MEN. In reality, there are so many incredible firefighters who are female, and they deserve just as much recognition. An example of one particular incredible female firefighter is Brenda Berkman.

In 1951, Brenda Berkman was born. She studied history for two years in grad school before moving on to study law for three years at law school. In 1977 the New York City Fire Department allowed women to take the exam to become firefighters for the first time in history. This was a pivotal moment in Brenda’s life, as she applied for the exam and trained extremely hard leading up to it. 90 women, including Brenda, turned up and took the exam. However, not a single one passed. It became clear that the exam was unfair and was designed more to ensure women did not pass. After requesting a fairer test and being ignored, Brenda put her years of law school into great use and filed a lawsuit.

Five years and one successful lawsuit later, she took the brand new test which had been redesigned to ensure it was job-related and fair. Along with around 40 other women, Brenda Berkman passed the exam and officially became one of the first female New York City firefighters. She founded the United Women Firefighters in 1982 and was its first ever president. She was doing amazing things for gender equality within the fire department. But the fight didn’t stop there. 

Brenda Berkman faced awful harassment and abuse whilst working as a firefighter, and at the end of her probationary period, she was fired for alleged lack of physical ability. In 1983 she successfully sued to be reinstated, and was also promoted. It was a long journey but Brenda not once gave up.

Brenda Berkman was also the first openly gay professional firefighter in the United States. She was originally married to a man, and was very reluctant to come out because of the fact she had already had to deal with so much simply because she was a woman. However, she made the brave decision to come out as a lesbian, and this also meant she was the first openly gay White House Fellow (a programme which gives participants experience working as assistants to senior White House staff).

Another example of Berkman’s unbelievable bravery was her experience responding to 9/11 as a firefighter. She happened to be off duty on 11thSeptember, meaning she had to go straight to the towers with no equipment as it had all been sent on fire trucks. Brenda was caught in the collapse of a third building which was 47 storeys tall. She managed to escape, and spent many of the following weeks on the search for survivors and remains. She and many other women played a vital role in responding to the awful events of that day, but Brenda noticed that many of the accounts of 9/11 focused primarily on the male firefighters that attended, many using the term ‘firemen’ instead of ‘firefighters’. She pushed to have the female firefighters efforts recognised on the same level which led to a video being produced named ‘The Women At Ground Zero’.

For 25 years, Brenda Berkman worked as a New York City firefighter and did an absolutely incredible job. Not only that, she worked tirelessly to be an advocate for gender equality, both within the fire service and in general. She has received many awards for her efforts including the Susan B. Anthony Award from the National Organization for Women in 1984 and the Distinguished Alumni Award from St. Olaf College in 1996. She has now retired but she hasn’t stopped being outspoken about gender equality, just as she has her entire career. Since retiring, Brenda has created art which has helped her deal with her 9/11 experiences.

It’s clear Brenda Berkman is a true inspiration to us all. She faced so much adversity at the start of her career, and despite being told she couldn’t achieve her dream of becoming a firefighter; she went ahead and did it anyway. She is living proof that nothing is impossible, and that you should not let anything hold you back – especially your gender. Now, whenever I think about people who put out fires and save people from burning buildings, one main person comes to mind. And that person is Brenda Berkman, the pioneering NYC Female Firefighter.

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