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FDNY Pioneer; Captain Who Fought for Women's Right to be Firefighters Retires
Brenda Berkman Has Place in New York Civil Right's History

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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 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 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 reinstated.

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 Berkman's retirement.

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.



 

 

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