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How Pioneering Firefighter Brenda Berkman Won Women’s Right to Heroism

“My uniform is emblematic of my philosophy that people should try to leave the world better than they found it.”

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” pioneering 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell told her students as she paved the way for women in science. And yet a century later, Brenda Berkman found embers of that but-a-woman cavil smoldering in the innermost chamber of culture, and she set out to extinguish them with unexampled fortitude of spirit.

Berkman, now an artist in her sixties, was once a lawyer before becoming one of the first women firefighters on the New York force, where she initiated and won — at great personal cost — a landmark lawsuit that forever changed the face of the fire department and became a precedent for equality far beyond its locale. Berkman recounts the hard-earned triumph through the lens of her uniform in one of the sixty-eight stories in Emily Spivack’s altogether wonderful Worn in New York (public library) — the continuation of Spivack’s Worn Stories, one of the most rewarding books of 2014, unraveling the tapestry of cultural and personal histories that make us who we are through the storytelling thread of sartorial micro-memoirs.

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Brenda Berkman’s uniform

I have this photograph of myself and a group of girls who were all editors of my high school’s newspaper in Richfield, Minnesota, dressed in the boys’ baseball team uniforms. To most people, that photo was a spoof or joke, but to me, it was serious. It was an example of what I wanted to be, but couldn’t be, because I was a girl. Throughout my childhood I had been a tomboy. My mother had signed me up for Little League because I wanted to play baseball. When the coach found out I was a girl, he turned me down. So the idea of wearing a uniform, especially a uniform to play a sport, got stuck in my mind as something honorable and desirable.

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