Kathy Wilkerson, first female firefighter in New Orleans, dies

Photo Courtesy: (WWL-TV New Orleans)
Photo Courtesy: (WWL-TV New Orleans)

Kathy Wilkerson, the city of New Orleans' first female firefighter, died Saturday of complications from cancer, the fire department announced.  She was 57.

A statement from the New Orleans Fire Department said Wilkerson died in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Wilkerson entered the fire department ranks in 1992 becoming the first female firefighter in the city's history.

"She broke the barrier for females coming into the fire service in New Orleans," said the department in its statement Saturday. 

In interviews marking her first days on the job back in 1992, Wilkerson admitted that she had encountered some resistance from her male counterparts, but that it evaporated once they saw her doing the job.

"I've earned respect by doing my job," Wilkerson said. "The men have found out that I'm not a load," she told a Times-Picayune reporter.

Wilkerson told WWL-TV reporter Mike Perlstein, then a reporter for the newspaper, that when she applied for the job, she was not driven by any grand designs to tear down gender barriers.

"I'm in shock," Wilkerson said at the time of her graduation. "I'm just glad I got through it."

Her entry into the department was not without controversy.  An investigation found that some training academy personnel made her meet higher physical standards than past recruits, along with mishandling the testing and application process for her, violating civil service rules.  There were also allegations that Wilkerson, who was African-American, had her civil rights violated.

There were even simpler problems, like the lack of a women's restroom at the training facility.

"I decided to do this for all the women out there. With some encouragement, there should be more of us coming along," she told Perlstein in an interview.

She said her two daughters, then 11 and 8 years old, kept her going.

"I didn't want them to think their mother was a quitter," she said. "They were really proud of me."

There are currently seven female firefighters in the NOFD, according to Capt. Terry Hardy, a district chief and fire department spokesman, who remembered going through the training academy in the 1990s with Wilkerson.

"She was a trailblazer, that's for sure," Hardy remembered Saturday.  "She came on when the fire department had just celebrated its 100th anniversary, and so her joining us at that time meant a lot."

Hardy said that even now, more than 20 years later, the department is always looking to recruit more female firefighters, and hopes that a recent personnel grant may help with that goal.

Wilkerson left the department in 1997, after suffering an auto accident.

She is survived by her two daughters and one grandchild.

Funeral services are pending, the department said.

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