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
The 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.