MAKERS Profile

Brenda Berkman

First NYC Female Firefighter

In this video

Brenda Berkman on integrating the FDNY and the steep price she and others paid to win equality.
Brenda Berkman served the City of New York for 25 years before retiring in 2006 as a captain in its storied Fire Department. Her bravery was twofold: Berkman was summa cum laude graduate of St. Olaf College and was practicing law with a New York University J.D. when, in 1977, the Department began, grudgingly, to allow women to test for firefighter positions. The young lawyer, and FDNY applicant, challenged the fairness and relevance of the newly intensified physical test and won a federal sex discrimination lawsuit that truly opened the Department to female firefighters for the first time. Berkman was among the first class of women hired.   Captain Berkman has led organizations of women’s firefighters in both the New York City and nationally while earning one Master’s in American History and another in Fire Protection Management. By now, Berkman’s deep commitment to her Department and to the people of New York has long outlasted the sexual and workplace harassment that came with her pioneering career. To honor friends and colleagues who were lost on 9/11, she volunteers as a guide for walking tours at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center in Lower Manhattan. 

More From Brenda

Being the Boss
How years of harassment by men in the fire department end up making Berkman an ideal boss.

The Firehouse Meal
Sometimes the smallest indignities are the most humiliating.

Going Without Camaraderie
Berkman describes how devastating and dangerous it was to be ostracized by her fellow firefighters.

Surviving Sexual Assault
Berkman opens up about being sexually assaulted and finding strength in cases like Anita Hill.

Change is Gradual
Revolutions don't happen in a day and victories aren't won without a lot of pain.

“Prices to be paid”
Berkman describes how she dealt with the intense harassment she faced fighting to integrate the Fire Department.

Women on the fire truck
On the importance of girls seeing women role models in all professions.

50s Click Moments
Playing sports?  Being school president?  Not if you were a girl in the 50s.  

Deciding to be a Firefighter
What does Berkman love so much about firefighting that she risked the harassment to do it?

Public Criticism
Berkman describes the very personal emotions of dealing with public criticism.

Taking a Stand
On how she decided to put an end to sex discrimination in the NYC Fire Department.