A couple of years ago we were lucky to hear New York City’s first female fire fighter, later captain; and now artist, 9/11 museum tour guide and humanitarian, Brenda Berkman, speak to children about her life and career. And Brenda’s thoughts about how we all can be heroes — especially women — has only become more poignant and topical over just the past two years as women have stood against injustice, hate, crime and misogyny.
A Path to Today
From the riveting testimony by women during the impeachment hearings to the female mayors and governors leading cities ravaged by Covid-19. Or even the brave judges beset by toxic masculinity and hate; and congresswomen fighting for our rights. It’s a particularly hard time to be a woman breaking that proverbial glass ceiling. Let alone keeping people safe. So, it was inspiring this week to reflect on Brenda’s story and the lessons she shared that day with NYC children.
Women as Heroes
When Brenda spoke that fall at our school, she talked first about how the media cover women heroes.
And this led to a moment where a student said that he didn’t realize that women were amongst those that saved lives during 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy.-Elementary student to retired NYFD captain Brenda Berkman
And that’s part of the rub — there is a certain amount of bias against even the idea of women as heroes.
But being a hero often means going against institutions and norms; not just saving lives. For women it can mean fighting an unpopular battle; and even putting your personal safety at risk. In Brenda’s case, she was forced to sue the New York Fire Department (twice) over inequality. To say it was a hard-fought battle is an understatement. The PBS documentary ‘Taking the Heat’ shows Brenda’s superhuman strength; and the sacrifices to her career and wellbeing.
Taking the Heat: Brenda Berkman’s Story
The strongest takeaways from the breath-taking tale was that Brenda would not give up. In the 70s becoming a firefighter was not considered a ‘proper’ job. And the NYFD did not want women. So taking on both fights meant trouble on all sides. When Brenda was the sole ‘named’ class plaintiff in a major lawsuit challenging the FDNY’s discriminatory hiring practices — she was plagued by threats and ridicule. And when she won she had to give up law and take a pay cut. That’s even before she started. And started a job that caused her to even be assaulted by male co-workers. It didn’t get better for a very long time.
“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.”-Brenda Berkman, “Taking the Heat”
Brenda retired in 2006 as a the first female NYFD captain after serving for twenty-five years. She has spent the intervening years helping out during natural disasters and speaking to children (amongst her work at the 9/11 museum and as an artist).
Encouraging the Next Generation
How do we encourage a future generation of female heroes? Or even remind ourselves? Well, here are a few ideas inspired by our talk with Brenda.
Encourage Wider View of the News
As a longtime veteran of the New York fire department by Sept 11, 2001, Brenda Berkman expected to see stories of heroic women in 9/11 coverage. But instead she realized that most of the coverage of women were as widows, nurses and volunteers. The omission of female first-responders; and the utility and construction workers at Ground Zero in the later years has been something Berkman has sought to correct. So, when we see news of an emergency or world event, help your child see past just the perfunctory news clips to the larger story of sacrifice that is likely more diverse than we think. And the absence of women is more common than you think.
The number of biographic tomes for kids has been growing of late. From the ‘Who Is, What Was and Where Was’ series to great books like ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’. Work as hard as you can to ensure your girls and boys read about people past and present who are extraordinary. It sounds obvious but is often overlooked. And for adults as well, there is no lack of biographies/autobiographies of women we should all know. There is no better way to put a moment of time into context than understanding it from another’s perspective.
Find Everyday Heroes
We need to remind ourselves and our children of the everyday heroes amongst us. Perhaps a teacher or a neighbor. We need to show our children that there are people with amazing stories of inspiration everywhere. Or even the not very ‘everyday’ — look up the backgrounds of the women leaders we see on the news or leading our cities and communities.
We were introduced to Brenda by an organization called The Female Lead. One of the messages that non-profit espouses is that a little girl can’t ‘be what she can’t see.’ So we are grateful to all women, like Brenda, who ensure that their stories show girls (and us all) a path.