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NEWS & IDEAS

Throwback Thursday: FDNY's First Female Firefighter Says 'Enough is Enough'

This year, four new women will join the FDNY, bringing the total number of women in its ranks to 41. There are 10,400 firefighters and officers in New York City altogether. Women were first allowed to take the Fire Academy’s entrance exam in 1978, but because the FDNY administered its most trying test of physical strength, all the women who applied failed the physical portion.

Lawyer Brenda Berkman saw the injustice and challenged the fairness and relevance of the intensified physical test. She won a federal sex discrimination lawsuit which truly opened the Department to female firefighters--and then she joined the first class at the Academy.

“No one could have understood the level and intensity of the opposition to women coming on,” Brenda told MAKERS. The men in her crew turned her locker upside down and messed with her protective gear to show her she wasn’t at all welcome. They excluded her from the firefighter family meal and denied her the kind of mentorship that male firefighters would receive from their superiors.

Though she faced such aggression, Brenda rose through the ranks to eventually become captain, and she spent 24 years on the job.  “Firefighting was really suited to my personality,” she told MAKERS. “I like the mental and physical challenges of it all. And I figured that if I didn’t like firefighting, I could always go back to practicing law.” But she loved the job, and she knew she had to stand up against sexism. “If I didn’t do it, well then who was going to do it?” She said.

“It may not be the easiest thing to do, but one person can make a change.” Because of Brenda Berkman, when these four women join the FDNY this year, they will be met by female mentors and greater respect.