Remarks of Lt. Brenda Berkman, FDNY, at The National Women's Law Center's 2001 Awards Dinner
"Celebrating the Many Roles of Women"

November 14, 2001

Thank you for honoring me tonight. By honoring me, you are honoring all the women rescue and recovery workers who have been doing their patriotic duty at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, in the armed forces and all over this country.

Who are these women? Where are the women rescue and recovery workers in the frenzy of media coverage of every little detail of Ground Zero that has occurred since September 11? We have all seen the stories about the rescue dogs and the "brothers" who are riding bikes across the country in memory of the firefighters killed at the World Trade Center. We have had the New York Times opine about the return of the "manly man" -- referring to male firefighters as the new cultural icons. We immediately had columns by right-wing pundits arguing that the lack of media coverage of women rescue workers was "proof" that women could not and should not be firefighters. Many of these stories have been reported, written or produced by women.

I am here to tell you that the reality is that women were and are at Ground Zero. They have been there since the first minutes of the attack. Half of the women in the New York City Fire Department -- and there are only 25 women out of 11,500 firefighters -- put themselves in harm's way that first day and for many days thereafter. Fortunately, none were killed.

There were also countless women EMT's, New York City police officers, Port Authority police officers and other emergency workers who responded immediately. Three uniformed women lost their lives that day: Port Authority Captain Kathy Mazza, NYPD officer Moira Smith, and EMT YamelMerino, who was working for a private ambulance service. Many more women were injured trying to save others -- women who literally had to have pieces of the buildings removed from their bodies, women who suffered broken bones and other injuries requiring hospitalization.

Within hours of the first plane, Ground Zero was flooded with other women emergency workers and volunteers. Women by the dozens came from all over the country as part of search-and-rescue and other firefighter teams. Women nurses and doctors, women construction workers, women chaplains, military women, Red Cross women -- women volunteering in every capacity, every minute of those first days and weeks. Women continue to work at Ground Zero today. Women and men have worked together as one, desperately searching for any sign of life.

The reality is that women have contributed to the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack in every imaginable way. But the face the media has put on the rescue and recovery efforts in New York City is almost exclusively that of men. Where are the pictures or stories of Captain Kathy Mazza shooting out the glass in the lobby of one of the towers to allow hundreds of people to flee the building more quickly? Or of police officer Moira Smith helping people escape the towers, and last be seen going back into the building to help a trapped asthmatic person? Or of EMT Yamel Merino tending to an injured person when she herself was struck by the falling building? Or of the countless women working on the pile of debris to recover anyone who may have survived, or the remains of the thousands of people who were in the building or on the airplanes?

One of the hardest things for the women firefighters to bear has been their total invisibility at the hundreds of funerals for their fallen comrades -- men we worked with for many years -- our friends, our "brothers." At almost every funeral we attend, the mayor, the cardinal, the fire commissioner and almost every eulogist -- except of course when we ourselves are the eulogists -- talk exclusively about the men and the brothers our co-workers worked with. The other day, as I attended another funeral for one of my friends in St. Patrick's Cathedral, the cardinal asked the men who are the "Bravest" to rise -- totally ignoring the dozens of women firefighters and police officers in attendance from all over the country.

The word "fireman" has totally eclipsed the gender-neutral and accurate civil service term "firefighter." Not quite as often, but still too frequently, the same has happened as "policeman" returns, to the exclusion of "police officer."

Why has this happened? The reality is that women are on the front lines domestically and abroad in the war against terrorism, and we need to do more to acknowledge that fact. After our past wars, the contributions of our mothers and grandmothers in the war efforts were ignored. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were "disappeared" into camps. It has only been recently that the historical amnesia about these events has been corrected. Those mistakes should have taught us that it is important to recognize the patriotism of all our citizens.

The struggle against terrorism and to preserve our way of life will be a long one. We will need to show our children and the world just exactly what it is that we are fighting for. This struggle is not to preserve buildings. It is a struggle to preserve freedoms and diversity, including the rights of women to participate in every aspect of our civic duties.

We all must make it our fight to raise the profile of women in this struggle: not just to give credit where credit is due, but also to ensure that American women are not made invisible in the way the women of Afghanistan have been forced into invisibility by the Taliban. The United States as a society is better than that. I would ask all of you to do everything you can to show your children that:

Women are firefighters;
Women are patriotic;
Women are heroes.

We should do no less for the women who put themselves on the line, not just on 9/11 but every day -- especially those who gave their lives to protect our freedoms.

Copyright © 2001 Brenda Berkman. May not be reprinted in any form without specific written permission of the author.




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