Brenda Berkman, First NYC Female Firefighter
Brenda Berkman on integrating the NYFD and the steep price she and others paid to win equality.
First NYC Female Firefighter
Brenda Berkman on integrating the FDNY and the steep price she and others paid to win equality.
BRENDA BERKMAN: It didn't matter if your entire male side of your family had been in the fire service since 1492. It did not matter. If you were born a girl, you were not going to be allowed to even apply to become a New York City firefighter.
I always saw firefighting as a great way of helping your community, because when people are in their direst hour of need and they don't know who else to call, they call the fire department.
There's no way that any of us who went into that first group of women hired by the New York City Fire Department could have understood the level and intensity of the opposition to women coming on.
There was a backlash that was going on from the conservative segments of American society that decided that the women's movement had gone too far. And what was a more perfect example of that than women in firefighting?
The men would turn my locker upside down. They put a huge bra-- I mean, huge. I don't know where this bra came from. And it had my initials on the cups.
They messed with my protective gear. They drained my air tanks. They messed with the equipment that I had to use. It really was intended to send a very clear message that you are not wanted here. This is never going to stop. And frankly, your life might be at risk if you pursue this.
One of the things that I studied while I was in school was the struggles of women to get the right to vote, to integrate other kinds of jobs. So I really felt like it was important not to give up.
I think too often, young people believe one person can never really make a change. I'm here to tell you that's not true. One person can make a change. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but one person can make a change.
BRENDA BERKMAN: The way that you learn the job was that the senior members in your firehouse would take you under-- all men at that point-- would take you under their wing and they would teach you things. Well, with a couple of notable exceptions, for the first seven years of my career, people would not mentor me at all. They just wouldn't talk to me.
And when I would go too a fire with people, I had no idea whether they would actually be there or if I needed them. That was really devastating, because not only did I not get the training, but also, I didn't get any of the camaraderie, which is such an important part of the firehouse. It's what makes the job a joy.
BRENDA BERKMAN: Well, in the beginning, it was quite terrible because one of the things that they did was they put me out of the meal, which meant that the men would not allow me to eat with them.
That's a big communal thing. When you sit down, you're eating, you're talking about what's going on on the job. You're talking about the fire you just went to, blah, blah, blah-- none of that. I had none of that.
I wasn't allowed you know to eat with them. So all I had to eat was peanut butter and jelly.
Now, you might ask yourself, how come I didn't just go out and get my own food? Well, because to make your own food in the kitchen while everybody else is making their big meal together and everything, I mean, it was just too brutal.
BRENDA BERKMAN: I got promoted to Lieutenant. And actually, I think I was much more suited to be an officer than a firefighter.
Separating yourself from the firefighters, not being able to be best friends and buddies with every firefighter that you work with, didn't bother me at all. You know, I was like so used to not being part of the gang in the kitchen that having to be the person in charge and be the bad guy and say, we can't be doing this or now we have to go out and do this unpleasant task, something like that, it didn't really strike me the same way it did a lot of the male supervisors.
BRENDA BERKMAN: At one point in my career-- this was about 10 years into my career-- I was sexually assaulted by a fire department employee. And I couldn't get any-- the fire department to do anything about this. It was actually a very devastating incident in my career, where I got extremely depressed and I thought I was going to have to quit the fire service.
But the good thing that came out of it was that, at the same time that that was going on with me, Anita Hill conf-- the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were going on. Anita Hill had spoke out about Clarence Thomas. And Paula Coughlin had complained in the Navy about the sexual assaults and harassment that went on at Tailhook. This big convention for Navy-- Navy aviators.
So, you know, it [SIGHS]-- it really does take a village. There-- this was not something that certainly I or any other person could have done on their own.
BRENDA BERKMAN: The stuff that happened the first 10 years of my career in the fire department was extremely nasty. We were getting dead rats put in our pockets. We were getting our boots pissed in. We were-- you know, you really don't want to put your foot in a boot that smells like piss.
All these different things, you know, I realized that-- that if it was an important cause that there were going to be prices to be paid. And also I felt like as the person who was constantly being put out there as the leader of the women's organization, that if I quit, the department would interpret that as sort of open season on the rest of the women. And that one by one they'd be picked off or, you know, forced out in some way or another. So I really felt like that it was important not to give up.
BRENDA BERKMAN: I think that young women don't realize the degree of suffering that women-- and even some of their male supporters who were retaliated against for supporting the women's movement-- the hardships that they had to put up with to accomplish these things. It certainly was never a matter of some judge signing an order and then boom, things magically changed overnight. Because you know, as even the judge in my case, I'm sure he'd be one of the first to admit there was no order that he was going to issue that was going to protect me in those early days from harassment discrimination.
BRENDA BERKMAN: We were constantly being ridiculed in the media. And the thing that I really had a hard time learning and I'm not sure anyone ever completely is able to take this in, is to try not to take that stuff personally. Because it's-- you become a symbol of something, of a change that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
And it has nothing to do with you personally. Those people did not know me. They never had a conversation with me. They had no idea what I was about. They had no idea how much I love the job, how much-- how much I cared about my work, how incredibly hard I worked to try and learn the job. They felt that-- you know, I could just be ridiculed.
BRENDA BERKMAN: Firefighting, it turns out, was really suited to my personality. You don't sit behind a desk all day long. Every day that you go into work, you never know what you're going to face that day. Sometimes that can be a little scary and intimidating but it's also very challenging mentally and physically. 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.
BRENDA BERKMAN: For many years I've said in interviews that I really wasn't that interested in making a political point, or a sociological point, or whatever you want to call it about integrating the New York City Fire Department. But in reflection, I really think that I was because there's just this accumulation of things that happened to me as a little girl where I just finally had it. And I said to myself whether consciously or unconsciously and the whole swirling of the women's movement around me that enough is enough already. And somebody has to stand up to what's wrong about sexism, what's wrong about discrimination based on gender. And if I didn't do it, well, then who was going to do it?
BRENDA BERKMAN: The click moment for me was when I was turned down for joining a little league. And it may seem really trivial to people. But when you were a little girl growing up in the '50s and you really liked to play sports and there were no opportunities-- to be turned down just because you were a girl was, for me, a big click moment. And that went on all the way through junior high where the president of the student council was invariably a boy. The girls could be secretary of the student council but-- whatever. So if you were a girl growing up in the '50s, you certainly had plenty of opportunities for click moments.
BRENDA BERKMAN: There's still so few women in these jobs that young girls growing up, they're not seeing the women on the fire truck. And I think that if you don't see women in the roles that you aspire to, you assume that they're not really open to you, and that you really can't do those jobs.
Listen, most people have no interest in being a pioneer. They don't want the struggle. They don't want the hardships. They want a good-paying job, something that's going to support their family, something that they can go to and have some fun maybe at, not be bored by.
Yay! The fire service is the perfect answer. But they just don't see themselves on that fire truck, so they think women must not be firefighters. Therefore, I can't aspire to be a firefighter.