BY BILL MASON AND SOPHIA CHANG. STAFF WRITERS
Newsday (New York)
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
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
"In the early days, things were not easy," Berkman, 54,
said in a phone interview yesterday. "But my group of women
stayed and persevered because they loved the job."
In the history of the Fire Department, there was never a
female firefighter until after Berkman, then a young lawyer,
led and won a class-action lawsuit filed in 1977 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.
Then-Mayor Ed Koch attended her graduation ceremony and
said, "Bravery and valor know no sex."
But Berkman's struggle was far from over. Veteran
firefighters groused about the women, who they said would
endanger the department's esprit de corps, other
firefighters and the public.
Berkman said that initially she was often shunned and
harassed by colleagues. "There was a hostile atmosphere,"
she said, including exclusion from communal activities, a
large naked female doll featured in the firehouse kitchen,
and garbage left in her bunk.
The smoldering ill feelings between Berkman and other
firefighters appeared to have reignited in 1983 after
Berkman, president of United Women Firefighters, complained
in court with other female firefighters that a training
program discriminated against them.
Later that year, Berkman and a fellow female firefighter
were fired on the grounds that they lacked the upper-body
strength to control or advance fire hoses, a skill
considered essential to firefighting. A federal judge found
that they had been discriminated against and ordered them
Eventually, Berkman found her groove, and in her last
job, she served as captain of Engine 239 in Brooklyn, near
her own neighborhood.
"I've enjoyed working with a lot of people in FDNY, and
serving in my community has been a blessing," she said.
Marianne Monahan, a retired FDNY captain from Malverne
who entered the academy with Berkman in 1982, hailed her as
a champion for women's rights.
"Had she not fought for us, I doubt that we would be
here," Monahan said.
An FDNY spokesman declined a request for comment on
Even in retirement, Berkman hopes to still inspire women
to join the FDNY.
"We still hope the Fire Department will improve their
record," Berkman said.