There are few times I meet someone and fail to offer them my friendly Midwestern smile and a “Howareya?” But this past Friday night while I was in Times Square celebrating and dancing with the Brave Girls Alliance as we watched our billboard flash on the busiest street corner in America I was rendered completely speechless.
There in the back of the large crowd gathered to cheer on the BGA stood an unassuming woman with short white hair. She was in a simple blue jacket and had her hands in her pockets, hanging out in a quieter part of our corner. She was Brenda Berkman.
Do you know that name?
I recognized her instantly and made a bee line for her, preparing to say something witty and inspiring about the BGA and our event and thanking her for coming. But I couldn’t because the closer I got to her I felt tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. By the time I reached her all I could do was grab her arms and whisper, “I know who you are. You are a hero.”
She looked stunned. Maybe she thought I was partly crazy, maybe she isn’t used to being recognized. But I knew who she was.
She was the first female fire fighter in New York City.
She filed a landmark sex discrimination suit that changed the way women could participate in the rescue services.
She became one of the highest ranking women in the FDNY and served New York City for twenty five years. Only she and two other women have become an FDNY Captain.
She was a major force during the chaotic response on 9/11. She worked with recovery efforts at Ground Zero for a year after the attacks. After that, she gave tours at the memorial.
She has spent her time since 9/11 making sure the history doesn’t go just to the men, that the women who were there are also remembered.
And she was standing in front of me, at an event for a group that I created so that little girls everywhere would know women like her. So that little girls everywhere could grow up to become women like her without the federal law suits, sexism, and harassment that Brenda stood up to. Our girls don’t grow up hearing stories about women like Brenda often enough, but they should.
So I grabbed her hand, and I let my tears slide down my cheeks. Because in the face of a giant who has beaten out a path for me and for you and for my daughter and yours, I couldn’t come up with words. All I could do was whisper to her that I knew she was a hero.
After a few moments I composed myself while my friend Cynthia from the amazing site Women You Should Know explained to those standing around us why I was so overcome and who Brenda was. And then I told Brenda about Pigtail Pals and Redefining Girly and all of the wonderful women and girls who make up our group. I told her about the Brave Girls Alliance and what we were doing in Times Square. She smiled, and her eyes smiled, and she said, “Isn’t that something. Well done.”
I guess if you are going to meet a real NYC super hero, those are some pretty awesome words to hear.