To be honest, when it came to reporting on 9/11 I was really hoping I would somehow not end up covering it. Not because I don’t feel it shouldn’t be covered, it absolutely should, but because I feel like I just couldn’t bring anything especially insightful to the conversation. I was 17 at the time and though I was in Princeton, New Jersey, only 50 miles southwest of Manhattan, in the grand scheme of things I was not that impacted. Yes, my generation now possesses a sense of fear that didn’t exist before that day and as a New Yorker I am more freaked out and stressed than most (but hasn’t that always been the case for New Yorkers in some way?), but I really didn’t think I could contribute anything interesting to coverage of this tragic day.
And then I realized this isn’t about me, but this should be about the women we write about everyday on this site that are working hard and changing the world. Many of them were the heroes on 9/11, in all different capacities, and I would like to pay a small tribute to them.
In a CNN documentary that aired on Labor Day called “Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11” many of the female heroes of that day were given the chance to share their stories. This special is based on the book, “Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion,” by Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba. The documentary was also inspired by a question a little boy asked when one of the female firefighters from the book came to talk to his class. He asked how she could be a “fireman” if she was a girl. As one woman in the documentary says: “Little boys and little girls need to know” that women were there and served with courage.
The documentary highlights the fact that many of the women who sacrificed their lives on that historic day had to fight to get those jobs in the first place. Capt. Brenda Berkman sued the fire department, paving the way for women to join in 1982. Regina Wilson, who was hired in the wake of that lawsuit, was a probationary officer on 9/11. She rode to the flaming towers that day and was one truck away from being killed.
There are fewer female firefighters in general, and they are a smaller piece of the force than they were on 9/11. The New York Police Department is just 17% female, generations after the first woman joined. These are not unusual percentages in this country, although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is one-third female after being formed in 2003. CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien wrote, “There is a memorial to firefighters near ground zero that has no identifiable women’s faces, but they were there.”
There were also female flight attendants that fought til the last minute, like Sandy Bradshaw and Brenda Berkman, female journalists like Anne Thompson and Deborah Norville, as well as military personnel, police officers, paramedics and firefighters like Sgt. Tamara Thurman, Lt. Col. Karen Wagner, Terri Tobin, Carey Policastro, Kathy Mazza, Moira Smith, Yamel Merino, Regina Wilson, and the countless other women who lived and died on that day. Soledad O’Brien wrote:
“The women don’t dwell on the conflicts though. They prefer to recruit by example, by putting themselves out there in uniform and talking about their work. There is nothing like seeing a real-life hero and dreaming you could be one too.”
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