Women firsts: Molly Williams, the first firefighter for the Fire Department of the City of New York

The very first woman firefighter was not a woman looking “to do a man’s job”. In fact, she wasn’t even a woman free to make decisions. Molly Williams was a New York City black woman and a slave. Her owner, Benjamin Aymar, happened to be a volunteer fireman.

In 1818, a crippling blizzard hit New York City at the same time a massive flu outbreak sickened the entire male fire crew. With everyone out of commission except Molly, what else could she do but pitch in when a fire call came in? Wearing a calico dress, she dragged out the pumper and tackled that blaze all by herself.

However, 164 years would pass before New York City would see a woman fighting a fire. Not until 1982 did Brenda Berkman become the Fire Department of New York’s (FDNY) first woman firefighter. While the distinction was overdue, it wasn’t an easy time. Male firefighters made her life miserable. One even cut her fingers with a knife after she attempted to scrape off a degrading article about women on fire crews pasted on the firehouse wall. What happened to the man? He was suspended without pay and fined $15,000, but did not lose his job. His buddies raised enough money to pay the fine, so even that punishment had no meaning.

Over the next ten years, more women stepped into firefighting jobs with the department. One is now a lieutenant and the other became head of United Women Firefighters for four years. While the number of women in the FDNY is at 43, that hasn’t change much since the original women joined in 1982. Firefighters Regina Wilson and Tracy Lewis are both avid recruiters, hoping more women join them in what Lewis calls ‘a tough job, but one she loves’.

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