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The fight to raise awareness for female first responders in 9/11

One of the first women firefighters, Brenda Berkman, has led over a decade-long fight to highlight the role of women as first responders during 9/11.

20 years on, the attack on the Twin Towers still dominates the public memory of the world – but Brenda Berkman is fighting to show that we are remembering wrong.

Berkman was off duty when the first tower was hit on September 11th 2001, but raced into action alongside her fellow firefighters.

On the day, three women first responders were killed at Ground Zero, and Berkman knew 250 of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives.

However, in the news coverage in the following weeks and months Berkman noticed a distinct lack of recognition for the effort of women in the aftermath.

Berkman recalled that there was no acknowledgement that women like her were ‘doing exactly the same thing that the men were doing.’

Instead, the media focused on the heroism of the firemen and policemen – any coverage of women put them in more traditional roles, as widows or nurses.

‘They were saying there were no women firefighters killed there and so, therefore, there weren’t any women there,’ Berkman said.

‘It’s like we had to be killed doing our job.’

Since then, Berkman has been fighting to draw attention to these stories, as well as utility and construction workers who were there for months after, despite the health risks posed.

Initially, Berkman was unsure about tackling the subject; the culture of unity amongst the first responders and the intense sense of patriotism at the time seemed to make criticism an unapproachable topic.

But, in an interview given just before the 20th anniversary, Berkman recalled thinking, ‘what’s more patriotic than to point out that everyone in the United States, including the women and people of colour and LGBT community, that they’re all doing the right thing — everyone is pulling together, everyone is making sacrifices?’

Brenda Berkman has travelled across the US talking to lawmakers, giving speeches, and showcasing her own artwork to raise awareness of women first responders.

For her work as a firefighter and an activist, she has won the Susan B. Anthony Award from the National Organisation for Women and was appointed a White House Fellow by Bill Clinton.

These recognitions are also in acknowledgement of her effort to allow women to become firefighters at all.

In 1982, Berkman sued the City of New York for their discriminatory tests, which were designed to keep women out of the firefighting academy.

She was one of the 40 women who were the first to become firefighters, and faced unbelievable obstacles and harassment.

During her training, Berkman received death threats and intimidation, including the men firefighters putting rats in her uniform, draining her air tank and refusing to eat with her.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since then – over 95% of America’s firefighters are men and uniforms are still not tailored to fit women, despite reports that baggy gear and oversized boots are posing a risk to their safety.

Although there is still a long way to go, Berkman’s trailblazing work has not only opened the way for women to join the force, but also for their stories to be told.


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