Sunday, September 17, 2006

Here's To A Pioneer!

Trailblazing woman firefighter retires

September 16, 2006, 7:48 PM EDT
When fire Capt. Brenda Berkman is referred to as "one of New York's bravest," there's a second meaning to that title, one that has earned her a place in New York civil rights history.

Berkman, the leader of the city's first female firefighters, retired last week after 25 years as a New York City firefighter. She spent her career battling to prove the worth of women in the FDNY, first in the courts and then in the firehouse.

In the 117-year history of the Fire Department, there was never a female firefighter until 1977, when Berkman, then a young lawyer, led and won a class-action suit to become one.

The fight appeared to be over in 1982 when she and 10 other women graduated from the Fire Department's academy, after a court found that the department's physical tests for entry were discriminatory.
It seems hard to believe that it was only 25 years ago that women were not allowed to serve on the FDNY. I remember the brouhaha that arose-- they'd never be able to carry a 200 lb. man out of a burning building (this was before the obesity crisis hit and NO ONE could carry anyone out of a burning building), or have the physical stamina to run up six flights of stairs with 80 pounds of line and an air tank on their backs.

Always with the "theys," even us New Yorkers.

As if a woman couldn't strength train. As if a woman couldn't bring other more important traits to a job, like courage or intelligence or discipline. I'm not even sure what the real reason behind those fears was. Perhaps it was a woman in a man's "clubhouse," and the resulting psychological disruptions that might take place. I'm glad we got past that.

By all accounts, passing the exams was the easy part for Berkman. The "initiation" that new firefighters have to go thru was doubly tough for her and lasted a lot longer I'm sure than for any other "probie." She was even fired at one point because, you guessed it, "on the grounds that they lacked the upper-body strength to control or advance fire hoses, a skill considered essential to firefighting." A wise judge saw through that discriminatory tactic and ordered her and the other women reinstated. Berkman then went on to a long career as a firefighter.

Things aren't perfect, but they are a damn sight better because of Berkman, so Captain, please have a happy healthy retirement.

Update: Mike Finn of Crooks and Liars pointed out to me that the PBS series "Independent Lens" had portrayed Captain Berkman in 2005.

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