Brenda Berkman was born in 1951 and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From an early age, she had always noticed gender disparity around her. For instance, Berkman could not join the Little League as a young girl because of her gender. She received a B.A. degree from St. Olaf College, a M.A. in history from Indiana University, a J.D. from NYU Law School, and a second M.A. in Fire Protection Management from the City University of New York.
In 1977, women were allowed to test for positions as firefighters for the first time in the New York Fire Department. Although Berkman had passed the written portion of the exam, she had failed the physical aptitude test. Claiming that the test was unfair, she filed a complaint with the city and tried to create a more fair exam. However, at the time, her proposal was refused and matters were taken to court. In 1982, the court decided that the FDNY’s physical aptitude test violated the law and that the exam needed to be reformed. Berkman helped create a new exam system that both men and women could take in order to become firefighters. This allowed many more women to join the Fire Department of New York as firefighters, and so Berkman was able to embark on her journey towards more women empowerment with her job at the FDNY. On September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center’s towers were attacked, and Brenda Berkman went to the site despite being off-duty. With a small group of firefighters, she tried to uncover as many people from the rubble of the collapse.Three members of her crew perished during the endeavor. Berkman was recognized for her actions on this day and was honored by New York University for her bravery. Brenda Berkman eventually retired from the FDNY with the rank of captain in 2006 after 25 years of service.
Brenda Berkman worked towards empowering women to overcome discrimination in male-dominant environments such as the fire department and beyond. While working as a firefighter, Berkman founded the United Women Firefighters, a union that helps protect the rights of female firefighters in the FDNY. Berkman was well-known for her efforts in building the status of women in the work force, and especially in the fire department. Berkman received many awards and honors for her work such as, the Susan B. Anthony Award from the National Organization for Women; a Revson Fellowship on the Future of the City of New York, from Columbia University; and the Women of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women. She was also honored by the New York Labor History Associationin 2005 for her support of labor history.
Berkman always spoke about her experiences regarding discrimination in the workplace. However, she always conveyed that the discrimination never discouraged her, but in fact motivated her to prove herself to be equal to the men in her workplace. In an interview with PBS she had stated, “When I first came on the job 23 years ago, fighting fires was the easiest part of the job for me. Much harder was dealing with the hatred and discrimination that some male firefighters had for me. Now, many of the initial problems FDNY women firefighters encountered have improved.” In an interview with Talking History, Berkman stated, “The culture is very hostile to women. It's very hostile to difference. And,--you know--my argument is that if you promote diversity within your organization you benefit not only the people ... so-called minorities in the organization but you also benefit all those white men who really didn't want to go along with this program.” Read the full interview with Talking History. Read the full interview with PBS.