TAKING THE HEAT: The First Women Firefighters of New York City

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A firefighter climbs an outstretched fire ladder toward a burning building surrounded by thick clouds of grey and white smoke. 

Three female firefighters, two Caucasian and one African American, pose for the camera in a stylized portrait. They wear protective jackets with reflective yellow stripes, the outer two hold their helmets, the center wears hers; they look at the camera with serious expressions.
 
A woman in a dark blue New York City Fire Department uniform with blue and red suspenders, wearing a fire helmet stands in front of a shiny fire engine; she wears bright red lipstick and a smile.

Prior to 1977, New York City had a quota for women firefighters. The quota was zero.
—Brenda Berkman

What if your gender barred you from applying for a job, and once you were allowed to apply, the rules changed to make it impossible for you to qualify? What if you took legal action to be considered fairly for the job but then faced overwhelming discrimination and hostility from your co-workers? Welcome to the world of Captain Brenda Berkman and the first women to join one of the most celebrated—and macho—lifesaving organizations in the world: the New York City Fire Department.

TAKING THE HEAT: The First Women Firefighters of New York City tells the story of Berkman and the small group of women who dared to want a “man’s job.” Through one-on-one interviews, filmmaker Bann Roy exposes the loneliness, violence and even sexual abuse these women endured to serve their communities.

The story of women firefighters in New York City begins in 1977. As NYC emerged from financial crisis, the New York City Fire Department lifted an 11-year hiring freeze and began advertising for new recruits. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the FDNY was legally required to allow women to apply for the job of firefighter for the first time in history.

Captain Brenda Berkman on the job

The FDNY reacted by unveiling a new firefighter entrance exam, one that the New York City assistant personnel director described as the “most arduous test we have ever given to anyone.” When 90 out of 400 eligible women took the new physical test, all of them failed. Brenda Berkman, a marathon runner and a law student at New York University was among them.

Rather than walk away quietly, Berkman sued New York City and the FDNY for gender discrimination on behalf of women applicants—and won. The city was ordered to give the women a revised test—dubbed by many male firefighters as “the soft test”—and Berkman and the other women became instant targets for derision and anger from city officials, residents and even co-workers.

Male firefighters allegedly tampered with the women’s safety equipment, sometimes even bleeding the oxygen out of their air tanks. There were allegations of women being unwelcome at meals and subjected to obscenities and other verbal abuse, physical violence and even sexual molestation. More often than not only one or two persons in each firehouse harassed and intimidated the women, but other firefighters did nothing to stop them.

For 20 years, Brenda Berkman has been at the center of the controversy over whether women can save lives as well as men. It is a controversy that continues, today. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, many wondered why women weren’t among the firefighters who died in the Twin Towers. Today, as these pioneers retire one by one, their stories run the risk of being lost forever. TAKING THE HEAT preserves the stories and honors the women who served in the face of opposition, harassment and danger.

Learn about life as a firefighter from women of FDNY >>

View a timeline of the history of women firefighters >>

Read the filmmaker Q&A >>

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