Women’s right to vote honored in Central Park – 3 questions to Brenda Berkman

Did you know that there are no statues of real women in Central Park, New York City’s most famous and most visited park?! On a recent visit in New York, I had the pleasure of a chance meeting with Brenda Berkman, one of the women who’s changing that sad state of things.

In her mid-twenties, Brenda Berkman wanted to be a firefighter. Problem, this Minnesota native lived in NYC, and the Fire Department did not accept women. After winning her sex discrimination lawsuit in 1982, she was the first woman to enter the department. About a year ago, she joined the board of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund, an organisation that’s been campaigning for a statue to honor the pioneers of the suffragist movement in Central Park.

Can you tell us a bit more about the future statue?

Brenda BerkmanIt’s the achievement of a campaign to erect a statue of historical women in Central Park. There are only a handful of historical women’s statue in the city and none in Central Park! The statue will feature Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony but it’s a monument to ALL the women who fought for our right to vote, and it will include a number of women’s rights activists’ names.

I want to say that it’s the result of the efforts of a coalition of very diverse groups: activists obviously, historians, descendants of suffragists [Coline Jenkins, the fund’s vice-president is the great great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton], but also public officials, corporate entities and non-profits. For instance, the Girl Scouts joined in – and this came from the girls themselves. When they realized there was no statue of a real historical woman in Central Park, they were outraged!

I myself got involved because I’m a women’s rights activist. I fought for women firefighters during my career. Even as a young girl, I was frustrated by the invisibility of women in history and public spaces. It’s been a lifelong fight! Today, I lead an oral history project to preserve women firefighters’ history and remind people that women put their lives on the line everyday as first responders and were among the heroes of 9/11.
Over the course of my different activities, I got to know Coline Jenkins and also Pam Elam, the President of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Statue Fund and was invited to sit on the board.

Who are the women who’ve inspired you?

There are so many amazing women who’ve inspired me! Some I’ve had the pleasure to meet. For instance Billie Jean King, the great tennis player who took action for equality; Gloria Steinem, who’s known across the world, and Robin Morgan, the organizer of the 1968 Atlantic City Miss America protest that’s been dubbed the “bra-burning” demonstration. All of them are also big supporters of women firefighters.

I’m also inspired by women in history, many of whom I didn’t hear about in my studies. For instance, American children learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, but too little is taught about the extent of her work for the underprivileged. She was a voice for the voiceless, a big inspiration for me. She’s one of the few women who has a statue in New York by the way. Obviously a lot of women in public service inspire me but I’m also inspired by the women firefighters who keep fighting for equality.

There are a lot of people to be inspired by!

You’ve lived most of your life in NYC, what’s your favorite place in the city?

Yes, I moved here for law school and never left. I always felt like I should have been born here. New York never stands still. I love the diversity, you can see any culture from around the world here. There’s so much energy!

Central Park is one of my favorite places. It’s a fantastic place where you can experience nature  and where there are so many things to do. And it will be even better once we have the statue!

I also urge your readers to go the New-York Historical Society– a place that is way broader in its scope that the name might infer. They have permanent collections and temporary exhibitions on arts, crafts and, of course, historical movements. It’s the first historical institution in the US to have a specific space dedicated to women’s history in their permanent galleries. In 2020 [for the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the US], they will have a women’s suffrage exhibit.

Also, not really a place to visit in the usual sense, but every year, on the anniversary of a terrible fire that destroyed a clothing factory in Greenwich Village in 1911, killing over 120 young women and girls, we chalk their names on the sidewalks in the neighborhood, in front of the house they lived in.

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