Once upon a time, men made it physically impossible for women to become firefighters. But then one woman changed that forever.
In 1977, after 117 years, New York’s FDNY finally allowed women to apply to become firefighters — but at the same time, they changed the physical test to make it “the most arduous exam we have ever given,” according to Alfred Heil, the assistant personnel director in charge of the test. Of the 90 women who took the test, all 90 failed.
One, a 28-year-old law student named Brenda Berkman, was not going down without a fight. She sued the FDNY for gender discrimination. Now 66, she recalls to Makers, “It really was intended to send a very clear message [of] ‘You are not wanted here.’”
Berkman won her lawsuit in 1982 and, after taking another physical test, was able to join the FDNY — along with 41 other women. But the heat was still on, as the women faced overt and serious abuse from male firefighters, from death threats to sexual assault. “They messed with my protective gear, they drained my air tanks. Dead rats put in our pockets, our boots pissed in,” she recounts in the video above.
Still, she stayed a vital member of the force for 24 years and was eventually promoted to captain, paving the way for many others. Today 72 women are serving in the FDNY, which is the largest group in history.
Since retiring, Berkman has been profiled many times in the media (as well as in a PBS documentary, Taking the Heat), served as a prestigious White House Fellow, and focused on her artistic passions, including printmaking (her work can be seen here).
“One person can make a change,” she says. “It may not be the easiest thing to do, but one person can make a change.”
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