Honouring Women’s History

I was in Fremantle the other day and came across a … well, I’m not sure if it was a memorial, public art or historical interpretation. Maybe it was all three. You can see it in the photo above. Entitled ‘To the Fishermen’ it provides a brief history of fishing in Fremantle and Rockingham, the two

sculptures of fishermen and a list of names from pre-1947 fishing licenses listed down the poles, kind of memorial-like. An interesting way to present a history of people who, presumably mostly, didn’t die at sea. Still, it is a nice place to stand and think about the port as it would have been (while surrounded by posh cafes) and gives some context as to why the harbour is there. I especially like the way the scuplutre at the end of the little jetty is viewed with the present-day fishing boats behind it. Nice to be pointed to that link with the past.

The reason I titled this post the way I did, however, was the interesting way they’ve dealt with women’s roles in the fishing industry. In that they have pointed out they were involved but haven’t gone beyond that. Arguably they’ve done the same thing with Aboriginal fishing history prior to settlement by using a token sentence. However, perhaps as this is a fishing industry interpretation a recognition that Aboriginal people fished here first is all that is needed? But what about Aboriginal people who worked at the port? I don’t know the answer to these questions and I think there are interesting things to be said about valuing official industry over individual effort, but I can say more on women’s representations so I’ll stick to that.

The beginning of the interpretation panel (which, I have to point out is not terribly well written) says:

This sculpture honours the many families that have contributed to the fishing industry in Fremantle – in the very heart of the Fishing Boat Harbour where it all began. Though the names listed are taken from pre 1947 fishing license records, all those who have participated – both men and women – are equally honoured for their pioneering spirit and the hardships endured.

There is a lot to unpack here. I’m terribly interested in the use of the words ‘pioneering spirit’ in this context. This phrase is so often used and so loaded with meaning, especially to do with the character of the people referring to; they are good, hardy, upstanding, law-abiding, strugglers, winners-just-by-trying, they show some extra ability to persevere under hard conditions that we, today, could never match, they are clever/ingenious in the ways they solve the hardships they come up against, they are ‘first’ and therefore we can learn from them. Sound familiar? It legitimises their work and, in this case, the development of their industry by linking them with pioneers and all these wholesome ideas.

There is also the interesting decision to take names from the fishing license records. I’d like to know why that decision was made, why pre-1947, and what about the people who worked on boats and the wharves and factories who didn’t need licenses or couldn’t get them (I’m assuming they cost money and required a boat for starters)? These are the things I ponder while reading interpretation.

Now we get to the interesting bit: the not quite bracketed acknowledgement that women participated. You know what? I get it. I get that this is a fishing industry remembering site, I get that mostly men were the ones who went out in the boats, I get that this is the most romantic aspect of this history. I also get that deciding what to include and not include when space is limited and audience is wide is very difficult. What I don’t get is the way we find it so difficult to acknowledge women’s work – the normal, everyday work of house and child as well as the paid work so many women did – often organised into industries just like fishing. It isn’t really that this particular place doesn’t attempt to look at the real ways women participated it is that this so rarely happens ANYWHERE.

I’ve just written a 15,000 word paper on women’s representations in heritage, in particular in the State Register of Historic Places. Anecdotally I knew something was a bit off, but I really didn’t expect to find women basically missing. I mean, if I was going to generalise about women’s role in the past in Western Australia I would say that some went to school, occasionally went to hospital, married, had children, died. Oh, and did quite a bit of housework. There has been thirty years of serious women’s history scholarship. We know – or historians do – a lot about the different ways women negotiated their lives in the past and yet this has not filtered, in any meaningful, holistic, regular, everyday way down to sites such as ‘To the Fishermen’.

I have a great deal of difficulty understanding why.

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