Brenda Berkman

Brenda Berkman

Brenda Berkman, Firefighter. She sued the city of New York on the grounds that a physical test used in screening FDNY applicants was intentionally excluding women from the department. The lawsuit's successful ruling led to the first group of women (herself included) being hired by the FDNY in 1982. She was among the firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. A former White House Fellow, she is also the first openly gay person to be selected for this very competitive program. After retiring as a captain and following 25 years of service as a firefighter, she now volunteers as a tour guide at the 9/11 Tribute Museum in lower Manhattan.

"Any firefighter who tells you they’re not scared is not telling the truth. As you get older and you’re in charge of people, you feel responsible, whether you’re working that day or not; 9/11 was off the scale of all that. I honestly thought I was going to die and I was very anxious about the people who were with me. We’d gone from our homes with no equipment because it had been sent on the fire trucks. I got caught in the collapse of a 47-storey building at 5.20 in the afternoon – the third to go, which no one remembers. Living or dying was a matter of luck – who was working, in what area, who ran in what direction."

"It was hard afterwards, because who knew women were there? There were still relatively few of us – only 10 more in the New York City Fire Department than when I won in 1982 – so the odds were that none of us would be killed. But we were airbrushed from history. The narrative went back to the need to be saved by men.”

"I was sexually assaulted in the fire department. I lost friends who didn’t want to be involved with someone so controversial. But I also made friends. I didn’t become a firefighter to win a popularity contest. I did a job I loved for 25 years and I still mentor and advocate for women firefighters. I think I’ve been blessed."

Sources: Makers, Positive.News 

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