All of the panelists are active members of labor unions and reported a wide variance in the level of support they got from unions that have been historically dominated by male leadership.

Women Marked ‘35th’

The panel was convened Sept. 22 at NYU’s Tamiment Institute Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives to mark the 35th anniversary of the swearing-in of the first 41 women into the ranks of the FDNY in 1982. The library houses the collections of the United Women Firefighters and retired FDNY Capt. Brenda Berkman, who was the plaintiff in the lawsuit that ended the exclusion of women from the ranks of the department, after a Federal Judge determined the physical exam for the job discriminated against them.

“Prior to 1977, women were not even allowed to file to take the test for Firefighter,” recalled Ms. Berkman in front of the standing-room-only audience. “That meant that the quota for women in the New York City Fire Department prior to 1977 was zero. It did not matter if you had won an Olympic Gold medal or if you had won the title of strongest woman in the world, you could not apply to become a New York City Firefighter.”

Ms. Berkman contended that the FDNY’s response to the passage of Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed race or gender-based discrimination by employers, including local governments, was to develop a physical test that women could not pass. “More than 400 women passed the written portion of the Firefighter exam. Of the 90 women that dared to show up for the physical portion of the Firefighter exam, not a single one passed it,” she said. “And I was one of those 90 women and I believed the test was not job-related.”

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