How Pioneering Firefighter Brenda Berkman Won Women’s Right to Heroism
By Maria Popova
“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell told her students as she paved the way for women in science. And yet a century later, Brenda Berkman found embers of that but-a-woman cavil smoldering in the innermost chamber of culture, and she set out to extinguish them with unexampled fortitude of spirit.
Berkman, now an artist in her sixties, was once a lawyer before becoming one of the first women firefighters on the New York force, where she initiated and won — at great personal cost — a landmark lawsuit that forever changed the face of the fire department and became a precedent for equality far beyond its locale. Berkman recounts the hard-earned triumph through the lens of her uniform in one of the sixty-eight stories in Emily Spivack’s altogether wonderful Worn in New York (public library) — the continuation of Spivack’s Worn Stories, one of the most rewarding books of 2014, unraveling the tapestry of cultural and personal histories that make us who we are through the storytelling thread of sartorial micro-memoirs.
Berkman tells Spivack:
I have this photograph of myself and a group of girls who were all editors of my high school’s newspaper in Richfield, Minnesota, dressed in the boys’ baseball team uniforms. To most people, that photo was a spoof or joke, but to me, it was serious. It was an example of what I wanted to be, but couldn’t be, because I was a girl. Throughout my childhood I had been a tomboy. My mother had signed me up for Little League because I wanted to play baseball. When the coach found out I was a girl, he turned me down. So the idea of wearing a uniform, especially a uniform to play a sport, got stuck in my mind as something honorable and desirable.
Berkman came of age in an era of woefully gendered career opportunities, with girls groomed to be teachers, nurses, or secretaries — if they weren’t full-time wives, that is — and boys prepared for positions of power in law, commerce, and government. She did get married, but refused to accept the limiting career paths before her. After college, she took a job in her father-in-law’s law firm and saw him represent the women of the NYPD in a sex discrimination lawsuit, which inspired her to apply to law school so that she could fight for equality herself.
When Berkman entered the NYU law school at the height of the feminist movement, she found herself seated next to a young man who was a “fire buff” — a person she defines as “someone who may or may not be a firefighter but knows everything about the fire department.” Around that time, she began running marathons and discovering the strength of her physical being. These two new strands of thought twined into the idea of becoming a firefighter.
“Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves,” Adrienne Rich asserted in her fantastic 1977 convocation speech, “we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.” That year — Berkman’s first year of law school — the firefighter test opened for women for the first time. But there was a cruel twist — this was also the year New York City instituted the harshest physical abilities test ever required of firefighters, which included a number of physical tasks having little to do with what it actually takes to fight fires. Berkman took and aced the written portion of the test but failed the physical, even though she had trained for it by carrying her husband up and down flights of stairs — the kind of activity firefighters would actually need to perform on duty.
Not a single one of the ninety women who passed the written exam passed the physical one.
I needed to do something about that. None of us were asking that standards be lowered merely because we were women. We were asking that the standards be job-related and that women be given a fair opportunity to meet those standards. I sued, maintaining that the exam was not job-related and that it disccriminated against women. About four years later, I won the lawsuit.
Even at the beginning of my career, my fire department uniform symbolized my right, and all women’s right, to be a firefighter.
But that right was assaulted less than a year later, when Berkman was fired for alleged lack of physical ability — even though her performance was consistently in the top tier of every task the fire department had given women. When she returned to her firehouse on the Lower East Side to collect her belongings, the male firefighters wouldn’t speak to her. As she exited in silence, they began clapping. Far more heartbreaking for Berkman than the demonstrative humiliation, however, was the fact that she was no longer allowed to wear the uniform for which she had fought so hard.
Later that year, together with another woman who had been fired under the same pretext, Berkman sued the city to get their jobs back. She won the lawsuit, was assigned to a new firehouse in Harlem, and went on to serve her city for a quarter century before retiring with three citations of honor pinned to her captain’s uniform — one for a difficult fire in a tenement (a citation the still-embittered men in the department wanted to decline because Berkamn’s name was on it), one for a construction collapse during her tenure as lieutenant, and the third for her work at World Trade Center on 9/11, where she arrived as an off-duty firefighter just as the second tower was collapsing and toiled around the clock for days.
Looking back on her hard-earned chance at heroism, Berkman tells Spivack:
I am part of a tradition that’s self-sacrificing and service-oriented — in the middle of the night, in all weather, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. And it’s a way of serving your country without having to shoot people, which appealed to me. My parents raised me to believe that you are not put on Earth just to take up space. My uniform is emblematic of my philosophy that people should try to leave the world better than they found it.
Complement this fragment of the throughly fantastic Worn in New York — which features stories by Eileen Myles, Gay Talese, Jenji Kohan, Jenna Lyons, Lena Dunham, and Thelma Golden — with a modern manifesto for bravery and perseverance by one of San Francisco’s first women firefighters, then revisit astronaut Sally Ride in conversation with Gloria Steinem about what it was like to be the first American woman in space, the story of how astrophysicist Cecilia Payne became the first woman to chair a Harvard department, and this illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science.
Published November 16, 2017