Dealing with Harassment (1982–92)

As women firefighters began their new jobs they faced challenges well beyond the very demanding physical conditions of firefighting. Public controversy, the opposition of many of their male co-workers, and the firing of some of their small group—including the two most public women (Brenda Berkman and Zaida Gonzalez)—all made the work difficult. The court found “extraordinary evidence of intentional discrimination” when it reinstated Berkman and Gonzalez. The women struggled to figure out ways to respond to the difficult conditions, which persisted intensely for at least a decade. In the Academy, they formed the United Women Firefighters (UWF)—a “fraternal” organization—and elected Berkman as its first president.
  • Dragging hose line into a burning building

    Firefighter Rocky Jones of Engine 159 pulling hose line as she enters a burning building in an undated photo. The work was hard, but the difficulties not captured on film may have been equally hard. After graduation from the Fire Academy, the women firefighters were deliberately isolated, with only one woman assigned to a firehouse. Most of these first women experienced harassment and a variety of discriminatory acts (different assignments, different training, death threats, tampering with protective gear) from some of their male co-workers. The FDNY leadership did little to stop the harassment.

    Courtesy of Rochelle Jones

  • Firefighter Eileen Gregan

    Firefighter Eileen Gregan of Engine 250 operating at a fire in the 1980s.

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library

  • At the FDNY Training Academy

    Firefighter Lynn Porter of Engine 262 at the FDNY Training Academy.

    Courtesy of Lynn Porter Bernadotte

  • Practicing the Lorenzo ladder

    Firefighter Teresa French of Engine 18 at a training session for the Lorenzo ladder evolution—a technique for putting water on a fire from the exterior of a building from a window on the floor below, typically used in high-rise fires.

    Courtesy of Teresa French

  • Climbing the aerial ladder

    Firefighter Marianne McCormack of Engine 81 climbing an aerial ladder carrying heavy tools. The failure of the FDNY to provide properly fitting protective gear for the women, including gloves and boots, made the performance of carrying and operating tools and climbing ladders doubly difficult.

    Courtesy of Marianne McCormack

  • “Two firefems win back jobs”

    Article chronicling the reinstatement of firefighters Berkman and Gonzalez after they were found to have the victims of egregious discrimination during their probationary periods. This clipping reports Judge Charles Sifton’s “scathing decision” blasted the Fire Department for “blatant sexual mockery,” and ordered the women reinstated to the force with full back pay.

  • Political cartoon about harassment of
    women firefighters

    “What do you think, girls? Aren’t they the ones who were pulling all that sexual harassment?” reads the caption on this political cartoon by Rigby clipped from the Daily News, June 24th, 1986. The women hold the safety net that could save the lives of the male firefighters jumping from the upper stories of the burning building. The harassment suffered by the first FDNY women firefighters was an ongoing story in the media—with sympathetic treatments such as this one outnumbered by hostile articles, editorials and cartoons.

  • Cover story—“Taking the Heat”

    Daily News Sunday Magazine cover from July 5, 1987, with article on women firefighters, featuring photo of firefighters Pat Fitzpatrick and JoAnn Jacobs. For the most part, women firefighters were reluctant to give media interviews because of the increase in harassment that resulted.

  • Testifying before the City Council

    Brenda Berkman and JoAnn Jacobs testifying before the City Council, urging that the FDNY be made to do more to end the harassment of women firefighters. Clipping from the New York Times, January 15, 1987.

    Elected officials who offered support in the late 1980s and early 1990s included Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman, Public Advocate Andrew Stein, Councilmember Tom Duane, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick.

  • Harassment charges busting up firehouse

    “The Fire Department has begun to transfer male firefighters out of a Queens firehouse that has been rocked by sexual harassment allegations leveled by its lone female member,” reads this Daily News article. Firefighter Katrina Cannon is shown celebrating her swearing in (1983), and in 1991 when the article ran. Cannon attributed the seven years of intense harassment she faced in the firehouse to being black and being female. Her harassment complaints are reported in the context of the Senate hearings on Anita Hill’s harassment allegations against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

  • “A Fire is Raging”

    Flyer in response to charges of repeated sexual harassment against a Fire Department medical doctor. “Why is the city doing nothing to put out the fire of sexual harassment in the fire department?” the text inside reads, continuing “The Fire Department has the lowest number of women of any City Department, and the highest rate of sexual harassment complaints.” The 1992 flyer, in Spanish and English, is put out by the Women’s Action Coalition, a group established to draw public attention to the issues of gender discrimination.

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library

  • Demonstration against FDNY sexual harassment

    After three women firefighters came forward alleging sexual abuse by the same FDNY medical division doctor, a campaign was organized to protest the FDNY’s failure to discipline the man and to pressure Mayor David Dinkins to take action. Efforts included leaflets like the one in the previous image, street theatre, press conferences by public officials and marches like the one pictured here in 1992.

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library

  • A Conference on Parity, Power and
    Sexual Harassment

    While the sexual harassment of women firefighters was in the news, confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas brought harassment allegations from his former subordinate Anita Hill into the headlines. At a 1992 conference, where Anita Hill was the keynote speaker, Firefighter Brenda Berkman spoke about the continuing harassment of women firefighters. Gloria Steinem also highlighted the harassment of women firefighters at the Women Tell the Truth Conference, April 25th, 1992 at Hunter College.

    Courtesy of Tamiment Library