A women's rights group is demanding a share of the $11 billion in federal disaster relief for the 9/11 terror attacks, saying it wants the money for affirmative action programs to help more women break into traditionally male fields like firefighting, construction and policing.

The New York-based NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund — a spinoff of the National Organization for Women — is threatening to sue for discrimination if its wishes aren't granted. Leading the campaign are female city firefighters who believe women's roles in the recovery effort have been largely overlooked.

Not surprisingly, the crusade has drawn howls of protest from some circles.

"Not a single taxpayer dollar should be spent on LDEF schemes," said senior fellow Christine Stolba of the Independent Women's Forum, a non-profit think tank. "It's quite crass for LDEF to shove their hand in the pot and demand a share. This is no place for gender politics."

Supporters of the effort say women significantly contributed to the recovery process — their heroic efforts just haven't grabbed as much attention or merit.

"There were a lot of female firefighters out there. There were women on 9/11 on the front lines," said Jennifer Wooley, manager of the Women and the Economy Program at the Center for Policy Alternatives. "NOW-LDEF has done a lot of work on those women that haven't made headlines."

NOW-LDEF declined requests to be interviewed.

The organization isn't the only outside entity to ask for some of the 9/11 federal money. A host of interest groups have clamored to be included when the dollars are doled out, sparking what will likely be a longstanding debate over appropriate uses of the funds.

Among those appealing to New York politicians are an array of lobbyists from the airline and software industries, the military, and agriculture, to name a few. Other organizations include victims groups, the AFL-CIO, the Greater New York Hospital Association, and business advocates like the New York City Partnership.

Though it hasn't offered extensive details of what it would do with Sept. 11 funds, NOW-LDEF has suggested it wants a portion of the money for women's job-training programs, child care access and services helping female applicants win contracts in fields like police work, fire protection, construction, and truck driving.

Stolba characterized the LDEF initiative as a "crackpot scheme."

"In this case, they're really not as good as the men were — they're not as physically capable," she said. "They're not the ones climbing up the towers to rescue people. This is a men's story."

Women are a minority in high-risk, hard-labor jobs like policing and firefighting, which yield heftier salaries than some female-dominated fields like caregiving. 

"It's important for women to have access to higher-paying work," Wooley said. "Finding ways for women to gain entry into these traditionally male-dominated fields will go a long way in closing the wage gap."

On average, women make 73 cents to every dollar a man earns.

According to the latest available statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 13,255 women worked as full-time firefighters in 1999 — 8.7 percent of the fire protection force. The majority of police officers, 71 percent, were also men.

Salaries in those fields were uneven, too, with male firefighters and cops making about $10,000 per year more than their female counterparts.

Regardless, Stolba, whose organization opposes gender-integrated military training and women in combat, doesn't want to see special concessions made for female applicants in the high physical-risk jobs.

"It's either, you can do it or you can't, and if you can't you shouldn't be allowed in just because you're a woman," she said.

Wooley doesn't think requirements need to be relaxed to incorporate women into physically dangerous careers.

"There are ways to do it without compromising public safety," she said. "There are women in these jobs; there is a precedent. When you're one of a few in a given occupation, it's going to be difficult at first. As participation increases, it becomes easier."