Women Firefighters Celebrate Game Changing Victory Won 30 Years Ago

Woman Firefighter
CareerHistoryNews 16 Comments

In September 1982, forty-two women were ordered hired as New York City firefighters after Federal District Judge Charles P. Sifton found the City had discriminated against women in the firefighter hiring process. This would be the first group of women ever to be admitted to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), the largest and most elite fire department in the world. Their landmark victory in New York would also go on to cause game changing ripple effects in fire houses and departments across the country.

Amid great controversy, being opposed in court by their own union long after New York City’s lawyers had abandoned appeals, and with virtually no preparation for either the new women or their male co-workers, many of these pioneer women were subjected to the worst kind of harassment including death threats, tampering with their protective gear, physical assaults and isolation. The new women firefighters struggled not only to learn their jobs in this hostile environment but also to obtain properly-fitting protective gear, maternity policies, anti-harassment training and fair hiring policies for future generations of FDNY firefighters.

All but one of that pioneer generation are now retired, replaced by a new group of women firefighters even smaller in number (29 out of 11,000 firefighters). Despite these low numbers, the most recent 2012 FDNY recruitment drive saw more women than ever before applying to become firefighters.

The Woman Who Led The Battle Of The Bravest

Brenda Berkman_FDNY Dress UniformThe trailblazing woman who brought this federal sex discrimination lawsuit against New York City – Berkman v. Koch – was Brenda Berkman. After her legal victory, Brenda was one of that first group of forty-two women firefighters hired and went on to have a robust 25 year career with the FDNY, which included her critical role as a first responder to the World Trade Center disaster site on September 11, 2001 and in the many months following. She eventually retired at the rank of Captain in 2006.

Today, Brenda’s lawsuit is still regarded as one of the most influential cases in the history of the US fire service.

  • Jim Fisher

    I personally think it was a sad day when the court ordered the women hired.
    This was the beginning of the end of hiring the best for the job but rather quota’s and lowered standards.
    I have worked with women firefighters in the past and have found that they just cannot stack up against their male counterparts.
    I know that this is still the way that the majority of firefighters feel but due to affirmative action and political correctness, the majority are uneasy to speak out.

    • Melanie

      WOW, just the other day I was relating a story to one of our younger lieutenants about discrimination in general, and how 50 years later we are no more evolved as a society.

      Thank you for proving, demonstrating and blatantly emphasizing my point. With such obtuse antiquated paradigms such as yours, we will probably remain in the dark ages even longer than necessary.

      I too have worked with both male and female firefighters; side-by-side, as a training instructor and as an officer, and being a 25-year veteran of a major fire department, I can tell you that is not their gender, but rather their character which determines their worth as a firefighter.

      Lastly, while you may feel that you and your thoughts are in the majority, you would be greatly dissapointed to learn that you actually are not!

      • Mike

        Melanie – you couldn’t be more wrong in your assessment or assertions. In fact, it is what you fail to mention that makes me feel you are intentionally misleading others about this issue. Putting aside any personal agenda you may have for the advancement of women in the fire service, I would expect you to recognize the danger of lowered standards. I too, am a firefighter, training officer, and CSCS (and male).

        A STANDARD is by definition discriminatory – it will discriminate between those who can and cannot meet the standard. Pulling a 3 inch hose, carrying and effectively using tools, throwing and ascending ladders in a safe and timely manner, drags and carries, the weight of wet gear and the SCBA are just a few examples of constants all firefighters must deal with, and things we shouldn’t compromise… In all my years, I have NEVER encountered a female who could do all of those things proficiently – NEVER! Why? Most of the time it has nothing to do with the female’s “character” and everything to do with physiology. If a female can meet a well-conceived and rigorous standard, then so be it – I have yet to see that happen. Otherwise, what is there to discuss? This is a life safety issue – no compromises.

        I can agree that female firefighters are valuable assets in the fire service (very specific roles). But I will also submit that typically, they can be tremendous liabilities (in certain roles). In leading readers to believe the current average female firefighter is somehow equivalent to the average male firefighter on a hose team, is laughable and dishonest.

    • StephanieH

      As an average citizen, I am grateful to the men and WOMEN who serve, risking life and limb as firefighters.

      Jim… when someone’s life or property are being saved do you honestly think anyone gives a rat’s ass if the firefighter is a man or a woman? I sure don’t.

      As is the case in all professions, you have people who excel at what they do, who are good at what they do, who perform at an average level and then those who just suck at their work. None of this has anything to do with gender and as Melanie points out, has everything to do with an individual’s character.

    • Urbanathlete_2010

      Mr. Fisher – I’m curious, since you seem to have an internal measuring device that estimates the value, worth and ability of a firefighter, I’m curious if you ever encountered a male firefighter who didn’t quite “stack up”?

      You don’t seriously expect us to believe that each and every one of your male co-workers did the job well, do you?

      • Jim Fisher


        I have encountered male firefighters in the past who don’t quite “stack up”. They are however, a very small percentage when compared against the total number of males in the fire service. The amount of females who don’t “stack up” are a much higher percentage compared against the total.
        This whole idea of recognizing gender within an organization is frankly dumb. The best candidate for the job should be hired and if it takes a court challenge to force the organization to hire, then I don’t feel that the department or citizens are getting the best employee available.
        I don’t agree that the job performance always has something to do with character.
        For example, you could have 2 engine companies, on made up of big burly men who are jerks and the other made up of really nice “girls next door”. Socially, I would much rather go for drinks with the ladies but professionally when things go south, I’ll take the 4 men every time.
        Just curious if you are a firefighter and what you honestly think your colleagues think about this topic.

        • Urbanathlete_2010

          Jim – I am not a firefighter, but thank you for your service to whatever neighborhood/community you serve.

          The one point you made that I do agree with is that in every profession, the best candidate should be hired for the job. But, if you exclude roughly 50% of the population from a particular profession you are then eliminating a huge pool from which to pull the best candidates, no?

          The second point I agree with you on is that filling positions based on quotas is not good for anyone… the folks in that field and the folks on the receiving end of whatever service is being provided. People should get jobs because they want to do them and because they are capable (physically/mentally/emotionally) to do that work.

          What I do not agree with is rendering an entire group of individuals useless based on their sex alone. What’s wrong with opening the opportunity up to any human being that is interested in pursuing that field and letting them take and pass the test that demonstrates they have the skill set to do the job they are testing for. Once on the job, there should be a check/balances system by which everyone’s performance is measured and those who don’t live up to the expectations of the job should be let go or should be given additional training to raise their skill set.

          Sure, there are probably lots of women who are not cut out to be firefighters, but I’m sure there are lots of men who are not either.

          The division you gave in your example of the two engine companies is interesting… a group of “big burly jerk men” and “really nice girls next door”. The fact that you’ve made men and women so cartoonishly stereotypical, speaks volumes in and of itself.

          I’m curious to understand what the women firefighters you worked with lacked, in your opinion. Trying to understand the source of professional deficiency, from your perspective.

          Again, thanks again for your selfless and brave service as a firefighter. Maybe some day you will have the opportunity to work alongside a female firefighter who just might impress you.

  • Millie

    Jim, Women make up MORE than half of the world’s population. We have held jobs as heads of state, secretaries of state, and prime ministers. I would never say that a firefighter’s job is easy. It’s probably one of the hardest, but if you believe that women cannot do this job, then you truly have an antiquated sense of being. Women can do this job, and do it extremely well. Obviously, you seem to catagorize women only as play things since you only want socialize with them and “go for drinks with the ladies”. Did it ever occur to you that some women may not want to have drinks with you?

    • Jim Fisher


      I think you do not understand the debate that has been going on here.
      I have never once said that women have not held jobs as heads of state, prime ministers, etc.
      In fact, I think some of them have been fantastic leaders (ie M Thatcher).
      As a front line firefighter, I have to disagree that women can do the job well. I have worked with female firefighters in the past and will tell you that there are only maybe 2 on the whole department that I feel somewhat safe with.
      I have no issue with women in the fire service in roles such as Prevention or EMS for example.
      The issue about questionable standards is not new. Go onto youtube and search for women in the fire service and you will find numerous examples of them not being able to meet the physical requirements.
      The bottom line is for every female hired in the fire service, there are at least 50-100 males that beat her in the physical exam and deserve the job but lost because of quota’s or political correctness.
      Just for your information my dear, I gave the scenario of socializing strictly as an example. I am happily married and would actually not want to go for “drinks with the ladies” as I love my wife and would much rather spend time with her.

      • Millie

        Oh, I understand the debate that has been going on. But the remark you made in your last paragraph says it all. I am NOT “your dear”. It is your chauvinistic attitude that comes through in every one of your comments and/or replies. I can see that you are not even willing to give women a chance.

        • Jim Fisher


          I wasn’t going to respond to your reply but upon further reflection thought I’d better set the record straight.
          You’ve gone with the famous “feminist” word calling me chauvinistic and stating that I am not even willing to give women a chance.
          I’ve given women plenty of chances in my career ending with one in particular refusing to go inside a burning house because it was “too hot”. The only problem was that I was already inside having wrongly assumed that she would be right behind me. I can assure you 100 percent that this would never had occurred if the firefighter had been a male on my rig.
          Give women a chance you say. Things ended well that night fortunately for all involved but what if they hadn’t? What if I found 2 people trapped inside the house but only was able to pull out one as my “partner” found it “too hot”? What if I got hurt/trapped and was unable to receive assistance because it was “too hot”? Do you think the situation would be acceptable to my wife and kids because I was willing to give “women a chance?” Your husband is dead/injured because the firefighter who barely made the minimum standards would not go in the house. Don’t worry though, at least he was willing to give women a chance so that should make everything better.
          This is not the type of job where if a mistake is made you can simply hit delete and start over. Lives can be lost or changed forever in a second so you’d damn well better be sure that the individuals that are with you are there because they are the BEST, not because of equal opportunity, court decisions, quota’s, etc.
          I am not going to further respond to this post as it seems like the truth on the subject is not wanted or welcomed anyway.

          • Clare (firefighter UK)

            Jim, don’t believe you mate. Bore off!

          • Alex

            Jim – This is an awful story that you just shared and one that could have ended quite tragically for you, your colleagues, any civilians involved, etc. Hearing this woman’s “response” to the fire you faced, is shocking, bizarre and quite unbelievable. If this story is, in fact, 100% factual then she clearly was not cut-out for the job and should have been fired immediately or had duties reduced, if firing was not an option.

            But to call this one woman’s on the job response and reaction – the “TRUTH” – of an entire gender is frankly as unbelievable as her saying that a fire was “too hot” for her to want to fight. I think that’s the point others have been trying to make here.

            Case in point, Melanie – the commenter above – has a much different TRUTH about women firefighters than yours. Perhaps, the TRUTH in this case is specific to individual experience rather than fodder for overarching generalizations.

            Like in any profession – doctor, lawyer, police officer, banker, chef, soldier – you are going to have firefighters (men & women) who are good at their jobs and some who are not… call it probability, human nature or the luck of the draw. Some people are just not cut-out for what they choose to do for a living.

            While your profession is one that leaves zero room for error, I too have a hard time grasping that every male firefighter you’ve encountered has been the BEST, to use your word, at his job and that none ever let you or their fire houses down.

            While I understand that you had a potentially life threatening front line experience with a female firefighter, it would be a crime to discount over 50% of the population because of her actions alone.

  • WYSK

    This topic, though decades old, surprisingly continues to spark great debate and elicits strong reactions and opinions. We thank everyone who has taken the time to share their personal thoughts on the matter here.

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