Brenda Berkman is no shrinking violet but she didn’t set out to be the poster-child of women firefighters. She just wanted to do her job. At the same time, she wasn’t going to pretend gender discrimination in non-traditional employment didn’t exist and so she tried her best to make things better for those who would follow. For 25 years, Brenda fought fires and sexual inequality, rising to the rank of Captain in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Not one to recoil from challenges, in her fifty-fifth year, Brenda revisited her long-ago passion for art and is currently an established printmaker, chronicling important social and environmental issues and keeping the memory of 9/11 alive through her work.
With a (Summa Cum Laude) degree from St Olaf College, the native Minnesotan went on to grad school at Indiana University with the intention of teaching college-level history. While wrapping up her Masters, Berkman did a summer job at a law firm and was drawn to the idea of using her skills to achieve greater social justice. And so she left the PhD program and switched to a legal track at NYU Law School.
But she found the law to be socially conservative: “Just think about it. In order to win a legal case, you have to refer back to previous decisions. It’s very difficult to move the ball up the field in law in terms of social justice issues. It’s not that it can’t be done, a couple of legal decisions can flip the paradigm, but it’s difficult.”
This growing awareness, combined with her natural athleticism and active personality, made Berkman think twice about whether law, and spending time sitting at a desk, was actually right for her. Although she remained in law school, she started to look around for inspiration.
In the summer of 1977, she was amazed to see the FDNY was – for the first time – allowing women to take the test for firefighter. “Up until that point, it didn’t matter if you were an Olympic-caliber athlete or holder of the ‘Strongest Woman in the World’ title, if you were born a woman, the FDNY did not want you.” But in response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title VII legislation, the Department realized they had no choice but to make the change. But they weren’t going to make it easy so they changed the entry exam, making it more difficult for women to pass the physical portion.
“Although I was finishing up law school, I thought firefighting could be the perfect occupation for me. It combines my strong desire to help my community and other people. The fact that it was not a desk job really appealed to me. I figured the job would be physically and mentally challenging and I would have to learn new skills. You never know what you’ll be called on to do as a firefighter and I’d have to know a little about lots of different things.”
Berkman along with about 90 other women took the physical part of the firefighter exam. They all failed. “I believed at the time that the test was not related to the actual job of firefighting. The FDNY had put in a bunch of obstacles that did not adequately measure the ability of a firefighter to the job. So I fought back.”
Berkman was the sole named class plaintiff to challenge the test in federal court. The City argued that she was just trying to make a political point. “I had to testify under oath that if I won the case, I would quit practicing law and become a firefighter.” And so, true to her word, when she won the decision five years later in 1982, that is exactly what she did. Even her own mother was amazed by Berkman’s decision: “She and everyone else wondered: ‘Why would a lawyer go through all this training, take a 50% cut in salary, and jump into the deep end of the pool?’ In all honesty, I had the luxury to do this because my then-husband was a lawyer and I could always return to law if it didn’t work out.”
Following Berkman’s example, many women came out of the woodwork to join the force. But their numbers were small and it was hard going. With only one woman to a battalion [several firehouses], they were very isolated. And Berkman’s reputation of ‘Chief Troublemaker’ did not help. “The first ten years were extremely difficult. There was lots of harassment and retaliation, I wasn’t even sure some of the men ‘had my back’ during some calls. With male firefighters who refused to speak, train, or even eat with me plus anonymous death threats and pornographic harassment, it was hard to feel part of the “team”. But I refused to quit something I loved because some men felt women shouldn’t be doing it … You know, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I wasn’t going to continue doing the job if I wasn’t up to it. This is serious business. After all, we are in the life-saving business.”
Not only did she love her job, but she was good at it, and for the next 25 years served her adopted city with competence and pride.
Like many others, Brenda Berkman’s life was changed forever on 9/11. On that unforgettable day, the then New York City Lieutenant lost many colleagues and friends. After surviving 9/11, she spent the next months working at Ground Zero in recovery efforts until the site closed.
Five years after 9/11 and after 25 years on the force, it was time to retire from the FDNY and the fire service. “It got to the point it wasn’t fun anymore. I was getting older. I realized I wanted to do something else with my life. Partly this was timing, changing as a person, but post 9/11, I realized that continuing as a firefighter was not good for me. I needed to recalibrate.”
At the age of 55, Berkman handed in her “helmet and hose” and started to look anew for inspiration. Collecting a pension and without immediate financial worries, she didn’t have much in mind except that the next step should be something completely different and yet she wanted to retain the ability to help the community.
She started volunteering at church in social projects targeted at the elderly and homeless and worked closely with the 9/11 Families Association and the United Women Firefighters Association. “Believe me, I had lots of opportunities, once people hear you are retired, they think you have an infinite amount of time. You really must figure out what you most like and where you can make the greatest contribution.”
Despite her busy schedule, Berkman felt a need to be more creative. As a child she had always been interested in art and music and throughout her career as a firefighter often received gifts of arts books, easels, and painting sets as friends knew of her interest. It took actual retirement to find the time to pursue her interest. She started taking print-making classes at the Art Students League. “Printmaking appealed to me because there is a certain amount of technology and process involved as well as creativity. Having been a firefighter and having to learn how to operate different kinds of tools, it seemed like a natural fit.”
At first she felt guilty. “I thought of art as being kind of selfish choice for me. I should be out saving the world but here I am drawing … but then I realized I was making something out of nothing. Being creative has become a huge thing for me. It has touched me in a very important way.”
Berkman donates a lot of her art to charitable causes and finds ways to use her work to help others. In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she worked with other artists to organize a collaborative project to deal with their responses to 9/11. Berkman worked on numerous rebuild projects after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. She also visited northeastern Japan after the 3/11/11 tsunami to talk to survivors and share her experiences as a New Yorker of how the City worked together to rebuild after 9/11. Some of her artwork was inspired by that trip. Other topics in her art deal with social issues such as oils spills in the Gulf and the 2008 financial collapse. Today she is working on a series of 36 views of the new One World Trade Center, a multi-year effort as the prints cannot be completed until the building is finished.
“All these different types of expressions turned out to really great for me personally but I hope that they are also helping others to move past their grief. Frankly I’m not so interested in making money although it would be nice to move some of my art out of my apartment! I’m more focused on just making and doing the art. In that sense, it has been very rewarding.”
Any regrets? “I don’t think anyone comes into this life with all the answers on how to make a successful career journey. I know I didn’t. When those women and I entered FDNY, we didn’t have anyone to turn to as an example or mentor. So looking back, I definitely wish I had understood the value of being able to talk about my story and make those outside firefighting – the ordinary citizen, the policy-maker – aware of the importance and benefits of having women firefighters. I wish we had spoken up more. It’s not that I wanted to be more high profile but I should have gotten the message out better. It’s a problem that still exists today. If you can convince people that women can be firefighters, you can convince people that women can be successful at anything. People need to understand how important it is to open jobs to women in the trades, the uniformed services, the military, and other non-traditional employment fields. These are careers women and girls should be considering but it’s still not happening.”
In fact today, there are fewer women firefighters in the FDNY than when Berkman joined the department in 1982.
Berkman may regret not having spoken her truth as a firefighter all the time, but she certainly pioneered the way for many women to follow and is recognized for all she did to improve the lot of others. (Berkman is the recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and other accolades and has been the subject of numerous articles, books, TV shows, an off-Broadway play and the 2006 PBS documentary “Taking the Heat.) And now as an artist she is getting a second chance to break new ground.
You can view and purchase Berkman’s art on her website.
Tips from Brenda Berkman:
- Don’t let stereotypes hold you back!
- Even if you can’t earn income from your passion, work it into your life and with time you might be able to make the shift.
- If you are not ready for the deep end, go in the wading section and transition to the deeper water when you are ready.
- People don’t respect you if you don’t speak up for yourself. Speak your truth.