THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Capt. Brenda Berkman
“We’ve suffered as a second generation not knowing our foremothers history.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, March 2023
BB: My name is Brenda Berkman. I was actually born in Asheville, North Carolina, October 19, 1951, but when I was three months old, I moved to the Minneapolis, St. Paul area in Minnesota, when my dad transferred. So, I grew up in Minnesota.
JW: Well, let’s talk about your childhood and growing up.
BB: My father’s family was Dutch. They’d come over from the Netherlands, my grandfather, around the time of World War I. Then immediately got sent back, or he enlisted and went back to Europe and fought in World War I. My grandfather, my dad’s father. My mom’s family has basically been in the United States from around the time of the revolution in the Southeast, the North Carolina – Georgia area. When the Cherokee were still there, but before the Trail of Tears and all that, they were down there during the Civil War.
My father’s side, they were farming people, ranching people. My grandfather ended up in Colorado. My mother’s side, dairy farmers, and they stayed in North Carolina. My father got transferred to Minnesota when I was three months old. My mom wasn’t so sure she wanted to live in that really cold, snowy state, but then she came to joke about it later that her roots were frozen in Minnesota. When people kept saying to her, “Why don’t you move back to North Carolina?” Especially after my father died, she was like, “No.” She always had a little bit of a Southern accent. People would say, “Where do you get that accent?” And she’s like, “South Minneapolis.”
So, my dad worked. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. My dad and mom had finished high school, but that was the end of their formal education. They were church going people. They really brought me up to believe that you weren’t put on earth to take up space. That you would try and do something with your life to make things better. Even though they really were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, really borderline in a lot of ways. Not that we went hungry, but my parents did not spend money. I don’t think people did in those days. If you were middle class, now I think you’d be regarded as, lower middle class.
All these veterans were coming back from the war. My dad had been injured during the war – almost killed. And he was essentially, physically disabled in some ways, but never talked about it. Just went to work every day. He worked for the post office, but at a desk job. They didn’t want to give him a job, I found out later on, because they didn’t want somebody who had a back problem and a disability. Anyway, he got one, and thank God for that, because that was what we lived on.
Growing up, I was very fortunate. All the neighbors around us were not very wealthy. Small houses, paid for with loans from the government. For the White veterans, anyway. And there were absolutely no African American people living in my relatively small suburb until I was in high school in the late 1960s. Then, the first African American family moved onto our block, and I thought, “Oh, my God, they’re going to start burning crosses.” I’m in high school, so we didn’t say we were “woke” in those days, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I was little, in those days, I was called a tomboy. I liked to do all things outdoors and physical activities. This was pre title IX, and there were no organized sports for girls where I grew up. This is kind of a seminal story. My mom tried to enroll me, I begged her, “Mom, please send in the money.” I think it was $5, so I can join Little League when I was eight years old. It was probably about 1959. So, she did that.
You don’t have really vivid memories of a lot of stuff in your childhood, but I have a pretty vivid memory that my mom got a telephone call from the coach of the head of the Little League in the suburb. He called up my mom, and he said, “This B. Berkman, is this your son or your daughter?” My mom said “It’s my daughter.” And he said, “Well, I’m very sorry, but we don’t let girls in Little League.” I was a really good ball player at the time, relative to the little boys around me, and I thought, “Well, this is stupid. He didn’t even watch me play. And I’m a really good ball player. I want to play ball – baseball, not softball. I want to play baseball. And he won’t even look at me. This is dopey.”
Then, there were some other things that happened in elementary school that set me off. Girls ran for student council, but they ran for secretary. They didn’t run for president of the student council. Well, I ran for president of the student council. I didn’t get elected; a little boy got elected. When I got into junior high school, they made me take home economics. I wanted to take shop. I wanted to pound nails and saw wood. No, I did not want to do the sewing machine. My mother, who was this big time sewer, made all my clothes, because that’s what people did in those days. They didn’t buy store bought clothes. They were too expensive.
So, I had all these handmade clothes, and my mom was very proud of this stuff, and I would bring home stuff from Home EC, and she’d be like, “Why did they let you waste this material?” You cut the buttonhole out in the middle of the blouse or something, “Why did they let you do that?” And the same with cooking. I didn’t really care about cooking. Mom and I had a few issues about girly stuff. She really wanted me to be more girly. She told me one time, “You can’t bounce down the street when you walk. That’s not how ladies walk.” And I thought, “Really?” That’s how I walked.
But my parents really did encourage me to do well in school. Parents of that generation, all of a sudden, they had these ambitions for their kids to go to college, and I really wanted to go to college. Now, my parents had not gone to college themselves, so they didn’t have a clue about college, and they didn’t have very much money. So, they were like, “What do you do to get scholarship, or can you go to a state school?”
And it wasn’t that Minnesota State schools were bad, but I had higher ambitions. So, I applied to some private liberal arts colleges in Minnesota. I got into St. Olaf. I also got into McAllister. McAllister wouldn’t give me any money, and my parents didn’t like the fact that they had coed dorms ahead of everybody else. I went into college in 1969. McAllister already had coed dorms, and they were right next to the U of Minnesota and they were very liberal. They were like me. That was how I was.
I went to a meeting in high school for the high school version of the SDS. I was anti-war. That went over big with my dad, of course, as a veteran. And then, another thing that happened, was when the Black family moved in to our neighborhood, our neighbors were all upset their property values were going to go down. They just knew it. And that’s where their money was. They couldn’t afford to have their houses lose value. That was essentially their retirement nest egg. Not to justify it, but that’s the way that people were thinking. And they didn’t know any Black people. So, “Black people, what were they like?” Remember, those guys had come out of the military when units were still segregated.
My mother had grown up in the south. When we went to visit my grandparents in North Carolina as a child, I distinctly remember the drinking fountains were marked White and Colored. You did not see black people around town at all. I don’t know where they were, but they had to be there. They weren’t around. They certainly weren’t at the municipal swimming pool, et cetera. And not at church either. We’d go to church with my grandparents and, no Black people.
I don’t know where I even got these ideas. Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale were running around Minnesota and they were pretty liberal. Humphrey especially, was a pioneer on civil rights. We didn’t have a whole lot of Black people in most neighborhoods in Minnesota. We didn’t have very many Jews. Jews all lived in St. Louis park where the Coen brothers grew up. We didn’t see indigenous people, American Indians they were called then. They were around, we just didn’t see them.
JW: I want to interrupt you 1 minute. I want to know if people moved out of your block.
BB: No, they did not. They really couldn’t afford to. They really didn’t move and they didn’t burn any crosses on anybody’s lawn. Although I’m sure there was a lot of mumbling and stuff going on. But in my house, around the kitchen table, my parents were worried about what was going to happen. My dad took it upon himself to walk up to the people’s house, and knock on the door. The father opened the door, tall, imposing Black man, my dad introduced himself, “I’m your neighbor who lives down the street and wanted to introduce myself. I work for the post office.” And the man said, “Well, I’m a career army.” That was it for my dad. If this guy was going to serve his country as a career, that’s all right with my dad.
So, I don’t know if he talked to the other neighbors or what happened, but that was sort of like the end of it. The son was a really talented basketball player, so that didn’t hurt. And the girls I didn’t know too much. One was about my age, but by the time they moved there, I was already on my way out the door to go to college. So, I had maybe one year, where I was in school at the same time they were. I ended up going to St. Olaf because they gave me some money. But St. Olaf was way more conservative than I thought I wanted to go.
This is sort of a lead up to the fact that I was kind of a left leaning, feminist little girl. I realized early on that I didn’t fit into this narrow definition of what a stereotypical woman should be like, and I didn’t want to be jammed into a box. I was really kind of envious of little boys and all the freedoms that they had and all the opportunities that they had to just do all kinds of stuff. I mean, think about it, there weren’t very many jobs, outside the home and motherhood, that were considered to be appropriate for women at the time.
I knew I did not want to be a secretary. My mom made me take typing, which was the best thing she could have done for me. I took it in summer school so it wouldn’t interfere with my regular studies. And then I tried to play various sports, but again, there weren’t any real organized sports. We had a pickup girl’s football team. We played tackle with no pads and no helmet. Just us, no adults involved. We just met on a field and did this, and when we told one of our stupid phys. ed. Teachers about this, she said, “Oh, you’re all going to get breast cancer from hitting each other” I mean, just stupid stuff. Anyway, she was off the line. Nobody listened to anything she said.
So, I go off to college. I hate my first year at St. Olaf. I decide I’m going to transfer to the University of Minnesota, but first I’m going to take summer school classes at the U of M and see how it is. A lot of stuff was going on at the U of M, like it was going on at the University of Wisconsin, where I guess they’d already had that lab bombing at that point. So, this would have been 1970, and then feminism was starting to percolate, even out in the Midwest. I went to the U of M for summer school. I hated it worse than St. Olaf, so I went back to St. Olaf. I hated those big classes. The yellowed lecture notes from introductory classes, and no interaction, really, with the professor.
So, I went back to St. Olaf, and I switched my major from English to History. I started reading Mary Wollstonecraft, and I got involved in the Newberry Library. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that, but I went down for a semester at the Newberry Library while I was a junior, and as a result, I met all these scholars who got me involved in the Atlas of Early American History. I was doing stuff way over my pay grade for an undergrad. And it was great. Loved it. I decided I was going to go to history graduate school and teach history, but there were no women’s history classes. There was really no women’s history period.
Now, I worked in the St. Olaf archives, and I had a great mentor there. Their first college archivist was a woman named Joan Olson, and she was my mentor, and she really encouraged me. My senior year, I did an oral history project about Norwegian American women, who had come to the United States, and what were their experiences? Women, immigrants. Now, most of them were dead. So, I interviewed their kids about their moms, but it was about women’s history.
And then I went off to Indiana University to graduate school because they gave me a free ride, and they had a respectable American history department. Susan Gubar actually, I don’t know if you know that name, she, along with another Susan, wrote this seminal feminist literature book called, Mad Woman in the Attic, and she was a grad student as part of my program at the Newberry. And then she went down to Indiana University to teach in the English department down there. So, I sort of was in touch with Susan, and when I was down at IU, I did an oral history of the feminist movement in Bloomington, Indiana for my master’s thesis.
JW: The feminist movement, meaning what years?
BB: Well, so we’re talking about now, the second wave. So, it would have been the 60s, early 70s. I met all these women who were driving buses and doing all kinds of stuff, not just academics. There were some academics, but blue-collar women. So, they were part of my oral history, too. I’m doing this oral history, and I’m thinking, “Okay, I’m going to keep going in history.” But there were no jobs teaching at the college level. Or if there were, there were those, we didn’t call them adjuncts in those days, but you would just sort of bounce from junior college to junior college.
I met my ex-husband there at IU, and he was coming back to New York to practice law where he had grown up, in his dad’s firm. I thought I’d come with him to New York and finish my PhD at CUNY with Herb Gutman, who was a big urban historian. Herb was great. He was ahead of the time. I also applied to law school at NYU. And when I went to talk to Professor Gutman, he said, “You should go to law school because the history field is pretty bleak right now.”
I thought, “Okay, I can do good in the world, and change the world for the better. Especially [for] women, and people of color, if I go to law school. I can be a social change agent as a lawyer.” So, off I go to law school. We had a women’s running team that I formed in law school called Race IPSA. I know it’s goofy, but women weren’t even really running. They weren’t running marathons in those days. Katherine Switzer had just tried to run and been manhandled by Jack Semple.
JW: What year was this?
BB: I was in law school from 1975 to 1978. I was in graduate school from ‘73 to ‘75 and then law school at NYU. And NYU actually, had a reasonably large number of women at the time. No law school had 50% women. They didn’t have the Birnbaum Institute. They didn’t have much, really, that was focused on sex discrimination law, except for one clinic that was run by a professor named Laura Sager, who was there when I was there, and is still there, but I didn’t take her clinic. I did a different clinic on employment law. I thought I was going to go into employment law, and do sex discrimination employment law. I’m going to make that up because it wasn’t around.
While I’m in law school, I’m working in my late father-in-law’s firm, and he’s representing female police officers, and I helped him on that case. There was a quota on female police officers in the NYPD. They were not allowed to hire more than 3% women in the NYPD, and those early women were not allowed to go out on patrol. They basically were not promoted because they didn’t have patrol experience.
Women who scored higher, when they eventually combined the police women and the police men’s exam after 1972 when Title VII got applied to states and municipalities, the police department then had to send women out on patrol and they had to get rid of the 3% quota which had kept women who had scored better on the exams from being hired. Men with worse exam scores got hired ahead of them. So, that meant that when the layoffs from New York came in the 1970s, the police women who had been discriminated against got laid off first, and they sued. And my late father-in-law represented them.
I met all these women cops, and I knew I didn’t want to be a cop, but at the same time, I met all these male fire officers because my father-in-law also represented the fire officer’s union for 30 years. I met all these fire officers, and jeez, didn’t this seem like the perfect job for me, because it was athletic, physical, it was serving your community. It was fantastic. You learned all these different things. A little bit, about a lot of different stuff, and it was highly respected by the people. You had a pension. You got a reasonably good salary, not as good as a lawyer, but you got a reasonably good salary, and health care and all that.
But women had not ever been allowed to even file to take the firefighters exam in New York City until 1977. And in fact, the first woman to be hired as a paid firefighter in the United States, Judy Brewer, had been hired in Arlington, Virginia. I didn’t know Judy at the time, around 1975. And when Judy applied, they came up with a physical abilities exam just for Judy. They didn’t have one for the men, but they thought, “Well, we got to give one for the women.” So, only Judy had to take a physical abilities exam.
I’m in law school and I’m thinking, “Do I really want to practice law? But I’m in my third year.” And now they’re giving this fire exam in 1977, and they’re allowing women to file for it. I kept calling personnel and saying to them, “When are you going to open the filing for the firefighter’s exam?” “Oh, we’ll take your name and telephone number” – this is pre-email – “We’ll take your name and telephone number, and we’ll call you when it happens.” So, I don’t hear anything. I don’t hear anything. Nothing.
Late one night, my next-door neighbor in law school dorm knocks on our door and says, “I just saw an ad. Do you know that tomorrow is the last day to file for the firefighter exam?” So, I run down to file for the firefighter exam the next day, the last day I could file, literally. I’m in really good shape, and I start training even harder. I was a marathon runner. I was lifting weights. I don’t want to go into all the nitty gritty of the lawsuit, but let’s just say that the firefighter physical abilities exam got changed to make it what the city guy who was in charge of the exam called, “The hardest exam we’ve ever given for anything.”
I’m training for it, and I’m in law school, and there’s all this negative publicity about how women are going to do terrible on this exam. And in fact, nobody thinks that any woman will be able to pass this exam. 400 women passed the written exam. Only 90 showed up for the physical exam. That included me, and not a single one of us passed. I could go into all the crazy stuff about the exam. It was not job related. It didn’t test for the actual abilities needed to be trained to be a firefighter.
JW: I’m guessing it was designed to weed you out.
BB: It’s almost impossible to prove intent in a discrimination case, but it was there. Stuff happened, like, they hired experts to develop the test. Then they brought it to a bunch of fire officers, and they said, “Okay, people are going to have to run the mile in nine minutes or less.” It was rank order speed to completion, this test. And this fire officer pipes up and says, “Well, my daughter could run it in nine minutes.” So, they changed it. Changed it to seven minutes and 30 seconds. Now, I didn’t have a problem with that, but a lot of women do have a problem with that. There was no basis for that. There was just some guy who piped up. There was no reason to change it. Anyway, they did.
I was really mad about failing this exam. A lot of funny stuff went on, crazy stuff. And I knew that I could protest the exam, but they had developed a system where your protests really didn’t count for anything. So, I went to Laura Sager in the women’s rights clinic, who I did not know, and I said to Laura, “Let’s sue the fire department. Would you represent me, please?”
And she said, “Well, what about the other women that failed the exam?” And I said, “We’re going to have to find them because the city wouldn’t give us any information.” They didn’t want to help. Meanwhile, the union also opposed us in the lawsuit. They opposed me, because I was the sole named class plaintiff. No other women stepped up to be part of the lawsuit until after we won. So, I’m the sole named class plaintiff, and I’ve now graduated law school.
Well, first we tried to settle the case. We get Bella Abzug, who was a family friend, and had been in law school at Columbia with my late father-in-law, and we go down with Laura and Bella and me. I don’t know if there’s anybody else with us, I don’t think so. And we say to the director of personnel, “Listen, we just want to settle this case. If you could just develop a job-related test and allow the women who pass the written test to take the new test, we’ll just drop the lawsuit.” And they said, “Sue us.” So, we did.
The lawsuit went on for about five years. Laura, to her credit, found a white shoe law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, that had the necessary resources to be able to carry on this litigation along with Laura. Now, Laura was the expert in sex discrimination law, but Debevoise brought in senior litigators and endless resources, because that was pre- email, that was pre digital filing. Everything had to be piped and xeroxed and a gazillion copies, and then hand delivered and all that stuff. It was a very expensive case. Debevoise was doing this pro bono. I mean, millions of dollars in legal fees for me, the sole named class plaintiff.
And I thought we were going to win. I thought our experts were way better than their experts. I thought our lawyers were way better than their lawyers. But a lot of people, needless to say, were betting against us, and I started to get all this negative publicity. Personally, negative publicity, harassment, even before I won my lawsuit. Pornography being mailed to my house, death threats, a death threat left on my answering machine, which the police refused to do anything to investigate. People accosting me because my picture was out there, so people accosted me on the subway.
“Women can’t be firefighters!” A lot of women were not in favor of this change. They absolutely were not in favor of this change. They found it threatening. Needless to say, a lot of male firefighters also found it very threatening because their identity as men was tied up with their job. So, a lot of them were not happy. The union was fighting us. And then, 1982, we won.
JW: Was it a jury trial?
BB: No, I did not want a jury trial. I knew, given the way the prejudices that the people had against women doing physically demanding and “brave jobs,” courageous jobs. Women were really struggling in the military. They were really struggling on police departments and in the trades. No, I wanted a judge. And so, we got Judge Charles P. Sifton in the Eastern District of New York, who’s not particularly sympathetic when we started out. But fortunately, Judge Sifton did keep an open mind, and he eventually came around to see that we had the law and the expert testimony on our side. So, he threw out the test.
The city developed a new test, and about 50 women passed it. A few more than 40 of us went into the academy. Almost none of the women dropped out in the academy. The academy was a whole other set of harassing behavior. Dangerously injuring women trainees in the academy. These instructors, who decided they were going to have a second shot at making us quit, or getting us out, getting us fired. This is all going on in 1982.
You know, I’m political. I was a lawyer. I was well educated. I’d engaged in social activism. I’d organized. I convinced these women, a lot of them were pretty conservative and not too social activist, but I convinced them that we need to form an organization, the United Women Firefighters. We got some support from the local NOW chapter, NOW New York City. We got support from a couple of council members who were also ridiculed for supporting us. Miriam Friedlander and Carol Greitzer were two women council members who stood up for us. And then people like Gloria Steinem.
This is a little further on. You know when Anita Hill came forward, there were three things that were happening simultaneously. So, there was Anita Hill, and I watched all those hearings, of course, and I was outraged, I wanted to personally go and whack Clarence with one of my firefighter tools. And then there was Paula Coughlin, who was a Navy lieutenant, got assaulted at Tailhook, so that was outrageous. And she complained, and as a whistleblower, of course, she got retaliated against, basically lost her career in the Navy. And I had been sexually assaulted by a fire department doctor.
Now we’re talking about in the 1990s, and I had had a really, really difficult time in the fire department for about eight years. I’d gone to the fire academy to teach, and I’d had an easier time of it there. So, I realized that there were guys in the department who might even be on my side to some degree, and who could be good coworkers. So, I got a little encouragement out there. And then I went to a different firehouse and things seemed to be going along pretty well. And then I got sexually assaulted by this fire department doctor. It turned out that two other women firefighters had also filed complaints about him. He was a groper. And nothing had been done.
One had been given assurances by the union that they would take care of it, that nothing would ever happen again. Well, that was bullshit. And then the state medical board would do nothing. I filed a complaint with them, and I had to go to a hearing, and he was just skating along. This is when Dinkins was mayor, and I knew Ruth Messenger, who was a big ally of his. Her chief of staff, Gail Brewer, who kept in politics long after Ruth, and is now back to being a council member in New York, but had also been Manhattan borough president.
The fire department refused to do anything about this guy. Somehow, the last day, Gail got to Ruth, who got to Dave, and I’m sure they thought I was a pain in their ass. But we had all these demonstrations out in front of City Hall. Crazy. It was terrible, though, for me personally, I was a wreck. I was basically on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because at that point, I thought things were going along pretty well. And I had actually advocated on behalf as president of the organization for many, many years.
I had advocated on behalf of women who had been treated badly, and I had been believed, I thought, by the department. But when I came forward with this complaint about a guy assaulting me, they ignored me. And that kind of like, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So, I was not feeling too great. And then the last day, they brought charges against him, and he was allowed to resign with his pension.
JW: Do you think the mayor had played a role in this?
BB: Oh, yes. He had to, because the fire department was not going to do this on their own. They were not sympathetic. I mean, they were taking orders from the mayor, and the mayor was taking orders from Ruth, and Ruth was being told by Gail, “You really got to do something about this.” So, I wasn’t in the room, but that’s the way I considered it.
There was a lot of press, and actually, to get back to the three people; Gloria had organized this conference at Hunter, along with a lot of other women activist advocates, including my partner at the time, Pam, who knew Gloria better than I, because she had invited Gloria to Kentucky when she was still living in Kentucky. It turns out Gloria spoke at St. Olaf College. I have no memory of this. Very strange. I wonder if I was in Chicago at the time, on my off-campus program? I know I would have remembered.
Anyway, ultimately, Gloria got a hold of me and said, “I’m doing this conference.” And then she gave us a big shout out at the conference. So, we had buttons made up that said, “I believe Anita Hill,” “Lieutenant Paula Coughlan,” and then “Firefighter Brenda Burkeman.” And my friend made these buttons up. I mean, I still have my button.
JW: Of course you do!
BB: My department was so terrible, I got involved as a leader of the National Organization of Women Firefighters, which had been formed around 1982. The two women who formed that got a hold of me right away, and there’s a lot of other stuff going on in there, but I got very involved in that. I became their unpaid volunteer legal advisor, and I was advising women all over the country, women firefighters, about discrimination and harassment.
Before I got a law job, because I had to work while I was waiting to win my lawsuit, I worked as a lawyer. Not in the field that I wanted to work in, but while I was waiting to get a job, I volunteered for Working Women’s Institute. Working Women’s Institute was in New York, and they were writing handbooks about women’s rights, and they were advising women. I don’t think either of them was a lawyer. And they asked me to write the handbook on employment law.
That was the very beginning of all those seminal legal cases having to do with women’s employment rights, and the definition of sexual harassment. So, I wrote that little booklet for them, and they were handing it out to all kinds of people. Then I got a law job, and I think I still did a little bit of volunteer work for them for a while, but then they were doing other stuff, or the group fell apart. I can’t remember exactly what happened.
JW: I’ve lost your chronology a bit there. So, you graduated law school, but you wanted to be a firefighter.
BB: Right. I figured if I’m no good as a firefighter, I can always go back and practice law.
JW: Absolutely. So, you did pass the bar and did some lawyering until you got the firefighter job.
BB: Right. And then I quit my job as a lawyer. Everybody thought I was crazy because I took a 50% salary cut. Some people knew about all this crap that was going on that was directed at me personally, because I was the sole named, class plaintiff. Actually, the city tried to get me knocked out as a named class plaintiff because they said, “She doesn’t really want to be a firefighter. She’s just a bra burning feminist who is bringing this lawsuit to make a political point.”
And so, I had to get up on the stand and testify under oath that if I won this lawsuit, I would quit my legal practice, and I would become a firefighter. I was telling the truth. Hand on the Bible, and the judge believed me, because it was true.
So, the minute I got hired, I had to quit my practice of law. And my mother said, “What did you bother with going to college, graduate school, and law school to get a job where all you need is a high school diploma? And furthermore, isn’t it dangerous, and don’t people hate you?” So, she was not that thrilled with it. For years, it was kind of like, “Maybe you could go back and practice law.” And I was like, “No, I really don’t want to do that.”
But then I became a White House fellow in 1996. I got selected, and I was the first professional firefighter ever to be selected as a White House fellow in the second Clinton administration, and she [my mother] got to go to the White House and meet President Clinton and Hillary. So, she thought that was pretty cool. And I got a distinguished alumni award from St. Olaf, so she thought that was the seal of approval. So, mom came around then. She was very proud of me and couldn’t stop bragging about her daughter, the firefighter.
All the way through my 25 years in the New York City Fire Department, I tried to advocate for women not only in firefighting, but also in nontraditional employments. I became friends with lots of tradeswomen, with women cops, women in the military. And people still contact me. They find me on the Internet and they send me, “Can you help me out with this?” I just got one from Arkansas the other day. Oh, my God. It’s like, lady, you got a tough row to hoe here. But I tried to give her advice.
And believe me, I’m not sure I would have won my lawsuit, because the first win, only the union appealed Judge Sifton’s order, and they lost the appeal. The second, there was Berkman part two, which is too complicated why there was Berkman part two, but the city had changed the test again. Again, it was having a discriminatory effect on women. And again, it included a lot of stuff that was really not job related and it was really bad. We ended up back in court on that and that got taken up to the Supreme Court. And they denied cert.
The city ended up abandoning that test because it actually killed people, not women candidates, but a couple of male candidates went to the hospital, and I think a guy died, I’m sure a guy died from taking that test. So, all of a sudden, the city is like, “We’re going to get our asses sued on this one.” So, they changed that test. But it continued along my whole 25-year career and continues today, that the FDNY is not welcoming to women.
Now, they are better than they were when we came in. We didn’t have any bathrooms. My first firehouse, they put me out of the meal. I wasn’t allowed to eat with the men. They wouldn’t trade shifts with me. They drained my air tank. They hampered with my protective gear and the equipment. And this is stupid stuff that can kill you because you rely on the team. And why would you do this, even? I mean, because if you’re relying on the team, why would you just automatically pull one person of the team out of playing in the game?
JW: That’s injurious to everybody, really.
BB: Yes, to them. And ultimately, when I started – because I talked all over the world, I talked to fire departments all over the world. Australia, UK, France, South Africa, you name it. Japan, I was all over the place. I started out trying to talk to the guys, because it was almost always all men, and say, “This is good for the community, helps bring in more people to raise up the standard of living in the community. This is good for the community because it shows equity and diversity” and that never seemed to really resonate with a lot of people.
So ultimately, I ended up making it a safety issue. Which is, that if you have only one group of people looking at an emergency situation, they’re looking at it very narrowly, and that puts everybody at risk. The people that you’re trying to help, and the people who are trying to help them. I was making the business practice argument. I think we just got under the wire because the judiciary got much more conservative right after I won Berkman one. Even in the second circuit. So, I don’t know that we would win that case today. I mean, I think we would because our expert testimony was so superior to the cities.
It’s been quite the ride, I have to say. And the whole time, I’ve been interested in women’s history. I’ve been advocating, I put all my papers down at the Wagner Labor Archives, now called Tamiment at NYU, and I got women firefighter papers in there. I’ve been trying to get oral histories of women firefighters from the first generation, because a lot of the women that came on the FDNY with me have already passed. We were counting them the other day, not long ago. Every year we’re losing more of them. And about, I want to say, a third of the 40 women who came on with me have died already.
So, as a historian, it’s really important for me. I’ve always believed, like so many of those people who were breaking down the sort of George Washington, no offense to George Washington, but the great man recounting of history, which we’re revisiting yet again to include more women, immigrants, people of color, all the stuff about slavery was starting to be more deeply researched at the time I was in grad school. Stuff about women, stuff about immigrants and poor people. And I’m still into that. I still want to preserve that stuff, which is one of the reasons why I’m talking to you.
JW: Yes. Well, I’m so pleased. I was going to say it brings us full circle. It’s why I’m doing this, is to preserve the stories of second waivers, as we called it.
BB: While we’re still here.
JW: Yes, while we’re still here and remember the stories. And we’re just so pleased that you did this. I really appreciate you doing this.
BB: I’ve gotten a lot of help over the years from other feminists. Gloria, as I mentioned, but also Robin Morgan. Brenda Fagan, a pretty famous feminist lawyer from out in California, and her partner, Joanne Parent. We just worked with them, with Joanne on talking statutes. I have always had ties to, and support, from other second wave feminists. I knew Bella a little bit, and know her daughters. It’s a small, small world.
JW: In some ways we wish it were bigger.
BB: But anyway, it’s all six degrees of separation.
JW: That’s true. Do you have any closing thoughts you want to add?
BB: Well, I get frustrated. I think that’s how I’d phrase it. I know Americans are ahistorical. They really don’t pay attention to history. They’re very bad about it. They think it’s boring. What’s the point of knowing this stuff? Who cares? We’ve moved on. And the younger generation, they have all this technology, and old people don’t know about the technology, so really, what can they learn from old people? Not very much, right? But we’ve suffered as a second generation, not knowing our foremother’s history. I think if women’s history had been studied more widely, we might have learned a lot of things that would have helped us in the second wave.
And I feel the same way about the current generation of young feminists. That they not only need to honor, not me, but all these women who really suffered to make it possible for younger women, and younger men, to have the opportunities that they have today to live in a better world with respect to women’s rights. And, we’re going backwards. We went backwards with abortion, and people have to be aware that this was hard work to get to where we are today. And there’s going to be a lot more hard work, so, it’s a marathon. I told the other women firefighters, “This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.” And it is. But you have to know your history.
JW: I think so. I totally agree.
BB: I hope they get it.
JW: We hope they watch some of these interviews.
BB: Or at least YouTube. I mean, there’s a documentary about me that PBS had released in 2006, Taking the Heat, and that’s on YouTube. There’s a children’s book about me called, Send a Girl, which came out last year. No, it was 2020. It was the beginning of the pandemic. And it’s pretty good. I didn’t write it, and I didn’t illustrate it, but I did give them notes, as they say. So, that’s around. And there’s a book called, The Women at Ground Zero, which I’m in, which talks about what women did at the Trade Center on 911, and the days thereafter. There’s Jane Latour’s book called, Sisters in the Brotherhoods, where a couple of us women firefighters are in, but also a lot of tradeswomen. And there’s some other good books about women firefighters out there.
There’s more, if people want to know. I was in Spike Lee’s series about 911. I was in the Netflix series about 911, as were other women firefighters and men of color. So, there’s stuff out there. Whereas when I came on, when I was growing up, you didn’t see any women on the fire truck. I worked really hard, especially after 911, to make sure that women were not erased from the history of 911. Because I had seen how women had been erased from the history of World War II, and it had taken a lifetime before those women started to get recognized for their service to the nation in World War II, and I did not want that to happen with 911. So, I pushed like crazy on this, and some people listened. Solidad O’Brien, National Women’s Law Center, Hillary. A few people did try and make people aware that women were doing the same things that the men were doing on 911. And died.