Law Suit Leads to Job-Related Test (1977–82)

The legal fight over equal opportunities for women in the FDNY lasted far longer than anticipated, and storms of media attention recurred at key moments. The lead attorneys for the Berkman class, Laura Sager (NYU Law School Women’s Rights clinic) and Robert King (Debevoise and Plimpton), found themselves conducting a very complicated case on behalf of only one named class plaintiff. The Berkman case involved mountains of expert testimony in hearings before Judge Charles P. Sifton in the federal district court in Brooklyn. Reactions from the media, the public and the Fire Department were generally unsympathetic to the lawsuit, and male firefighters fed the flames.
  • Plaintiff Brenda Berkman

    The case dragged on for nearly five years; during that time plaintiff Brenda Berkman (shown here circa 1982) passed the bar exam and began the practice of law.

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library

  • Judge Charles Sifton

    Federal District Judge Charles P. Sifton (pictured here in 1977, from a clipping from the New York Times in November 9, 2009) became a target for anger and harassment from male firefighters and members of the public.

  • Attorney Robert King

    Attorney Robert King of Debevoise and Plimpton (shown here circa 1982), one of the lead attorneys representing plaintiff Berkman. Testimony from testing researchers and exercise physiologists was only a small piece of the extensive case the attorneys built.

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library

  • “90 Fems Flop in Fire Test”

    A small sample of the enormous media attention the case drew, much of it highlighting widespread opposition to the idea of women firefighters. The tone of ridicule seen here was a common published response to the admission of women to the FDNY.

    “Firefighter survey: Women don’t belong in job,” news clipping dated February 4, 1979 and “90 Fems Flop in Fire Test—and One Sizzles,” news clipping from Daily News, May 16, 1978

  • “Firepersons Test” Cartoon

    Political cartoon by Frank Evers depicting a woman firefighter, dressed in a amusingly feminized caricature of a uniform, using a fire hose spraying “firepersons test” to spray the Uniformed Firefighters Association of NYC (UFA), from a clipping dated September 9, 1982.

    The humor here is quite mild compared to much of the editorial commentary in response to Judge Sifton’s decision. The UFA inflamed male firefighters and the general public with its constant insistence that these women firefighters were a threat to public and firefighter safety—that people would die and fires would take longer to put out because of women firefighters.

  • Demonstration against women firefighters

    This demonstration against Judge Sifton’s decision was reported in “Firelines,” the in-house UFA newsletter for FDNY firefighters, in April, 1986. The firefighters union (UFA) organized several large-scale public demonstrations against Judge Sifton’s orders in 1982 and 1983, and they continued their legal appeal long after the City’s attorneys ended their appeals and developed the new test. Each demonstration drew thousands of NYC firefighters and families; it typically started in front of Sifton’s district courthouse in Brooklyn and then continued over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. During these years women were beginning to work in unionized blue collar jobs; they met resistance, but that from male firefighters stands out as particularly fierce and long lasting.

  • Hostile letter

    Hostile reactions to women joining the NY fire department were widespread. This is just one sample, a relatively mild letter criticizing the admission of women firefighters. Berkman, Sifton and other supporters of the decision to hire women became targets for death threats, pornography and other harassment for more than a decade. Another letter addressed to Brenda Berkman and sent to Judge Sifton from a self-identified “5′3-1/2″ 252 lb. woman” criticized any change to the firefighter entry test and concluded by saying “HELL NO! women should not be firefighters” (February 1981). A 1982 poem from a “firefighter’s wife” ended by saying “Leave it to a man to carry it through.”

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library