During Women’s History Month zoom on March 10th, Brenda Berkman, the first female firefighter in New York City talked about her experience as a firefighter, the lawsuit that she won and what she does as of today.
The two moderators for this event were two co-chairs of the Women and Gender Studies, Katie St. John and Dr. Kimberly Rosenfeld.
Berkman was barred from playing Little League when she was a young girl, which was a sport she loved playing. Berkman then explains she wanted, “to do something to change the disparity that was in inequity between women and men.”
“My parents instilled in me a desire to give back to my community,” the long-time firefighter explained, “they knew that there was always somebody less fortunate than we were.”
Berkman then told her catchy mantra, “you are not on earth to take up space” and also talked about the inspiration she gained from the civil rights movement during the 1960s (and 70s).
While Berkman was in graduate school studying for her Ph.D. in history, she took a law class and began working for a law firm over the summer.
In her third year of law school (in 1977), she met fire officers and explained that they loved their job, which she felt like was the perfect job for her.
Women were not allowed to apply to take the firefighter entry exam until 1977, which changed because of Title VII.
When applying for the job, Berkman explained that while all of the women passed the multiple-choice exam, none of the women passed the physical exam.
The New York Fire Department (FDNY) was forced to open the test to women (in 1977) and as a result of that, they made the physical abilities test more difficult.
The YouTube channel called HISTORY explained that applicants had to climb over an eight-foot wall and carry a 120-pound duffel bag over their shoulder of three flights of stairs.
Berkman met with Laura Sager (professor at NYU Law School) and ended up suing the New York City Fire Department.
The NYC firefighter explained that when the lawsuit was happening, people were sending porn, death threats and stalking her.
As a result of Berkman winning the lawsuit, over 40 women wanted to take the second exam (including Berkman) and passed the brand new exam.
Berkman then talked about the harassment she and other female firefighters endured from many of the men firefighters after passing the exam, which included sexual harassment.
Despite that harassment, Berkman refused to quit because she loved her job and if she quit, it would discourage other women to become firefighters.
Berkman explains the benefits of having females as firefighters because “women are going to bring their experience and different perspectives to the job.”
After being promoted to being an officer, Berkman became happier because she loved training, mentoring and leading change.
Berkman continued in the FDNY for 25 years and is now an artist and still helps out with her community.