The Fire Department is mourning the death of one of the female pioneers in the Firefighter ranks in 1982, after a Federal Judge found the department’s physical test discriminatory and allowed women candidates to take a make-up exam.
Retired Firefighter Cecelia Cox, 68, was a member of the first class of 41 women who integrated a department that had been exclusively male since its founding in 1865. She went on to become the first woman to be assigned to a ladder company and then to become a ladder-company chauffeur.
Debated UFA Leader
Ms. Cox debated Unformed Firefighters Association president Nick Mancuso on television just as the women were coming on the job and joining his union. In addition to enduring harassment from some of their male colleagues, they faced picketing by the wives of some male Firefighters for reasons that included the claim they lacked the strength to do the job and would jeopardize lives and concerns about their sharing firehouse quarters.
In addition to her time as a front-line firefighter, she served as a member of the department’s Press Office and was featured in the documentary about the first FDNY women firefighters, “Taking the Heat.” Ms. Cox was also a member of the United Women Firefighters and the Vulcan Society.
“As one of the first women firefighters to be hired by the FDNY, Cecelia experienced substantial harassment and discrimination, especially at the beginning of her career,” wrote retired FDNY Captain Brenda Berkman, who initiated the landmark lawsuit. “But she always managed to maintain her professionalism and grace and continued to break down barriers—especially by her assignment to a ladder company. She will be greatly missed.”
“Cecelia Cox was a true trailblazer in the FDNY, bravely serving and protecting New Yorkers for 23 years and paving the way for the more than 100 women who serve in our ranks as firefighters and fire officers today,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said in a statement.
‘She’ll Be Sorely Missed’
“The Uniformed Firefighters Association is saddened to learn of the passing of Celie Cox,” said Gerard Fitzgerald, the president of the UFA, who added that she leaves behind “a long-lasting legacy with all those she impacted during her years with the Department, and she will be sorely missed by many.”
For three decades after she and her colleagues broke the gender barrier, women’s progress in the Firefighter ranks was stalled. This September, 16 women graduated from the Fire Academy, the largest number since that original class 37 years ago. In December 2016, the Fire Department announced it had completed its last phase of a $47-million retrofitting of all of the department’s 214 active firehouses with female restrooms and locker rooms.
In 1990 Ms. Cox married fellow Firefighter Andre Cox, who survives her along with her mother, her two daughters and two grandchildren.
Services will be held Nov. 15 at St. Albans Congregational Church in Jamaica, Queens, with a viewing from 9 a.m. followed by the funeral from 10 to 11 a.m.
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