I've taken the title of a really interesting book called Writing History in the Digital Age as the title of this page in my Blog. Although the lost story of the history of female firefighters is of itself interesting, the only reason I have been able to bring together this visual history to share with others is because of the tools available to me in the digital age. This is one of the things that excites me about digital humanities and it's possibilities in the real world. Without the internet it would have been unlikely that an amateur her-story sleuth (as I sometimes see myself) would have been able to patch together over time the materials I have to hand, and shared with others. The digital age offers new and amazing opportunities for understanding everyday life through visual studies methodologies, although in the case of this Blog I have simply created an archive, the next step in my work will take this archive further.
Don't under-estimate ebay as a source of historical artifacts of lost stories. In everyday life, I would not have followed the thread of influences that lead to "lady firefighters" in various pockets of the world had I not had access to postcards and other materials through ebay. I am torn about this access. On the one hand it reveals what is lost or previously thrown away because new value is found in old objects (material value). Many of the images of early female firefighters I have in my collection would remain disconnected and lost had I not had access to them. On the other hand, I am troubled by ethnographic and cultural displacement, whereby objects from one country are taken to another, and put in to someone's collection (in this case mine). I have reconciled myself to this unease because postcards were meant to be sent around the world, and out of copyright newsletters can and are being digital recorded.
The impulse by women to engage in firefighting, whether encouraged by menfolk or not, is clear. Women have a long history of being involved in firefighting institutions, wearing uniforms, using pump, branch and hose, leaping into sheets, and defending exposures when fires occurred, at least since the late 19th Century. I have photographic evidence collected from the United Kingdom (from whence lady firefighters appear to have been first established) to Australia (via Captain Webb who traveled to the colony and established the first ladies fire brigade during the year of Federation and Australian nationhood in 1901) and North America (I am yet to discover the origin). Discovering more about this story can't only be achieved through digital means - physical journeys to actual archives and historical places and spaces is also required. But the digital age provided an important starting point that allowed me to slowly collect the bare bones of an intriguing story that challenges contemporary and (amazingly) continuing questions about the right and capacity of women to be firefighters.
The gender gap in terms of story telling about firefighters also presents a dilemma. The modus operandi of much firefighter history is masculanised and heroicised - witness the newspaper headlins following bush fires in Australia, and the iconic visual images that emerged following 9/11. The idea of the heroic firefighter (assumed male) is at times true - heroic acts exist and should be valued, as appropriate in all walks of life. Yet the popular impulse towards "the firefighter hero" tends to obscure and therefore devalue the skilled, capable firefighter who works in a crew, "has the backs" of firefighter colleagues and engages in emergency prevention as well as response and recovery. My aim is not to try to create a heroic or iconic competition with the heroism discourse that is typically associated with male firefighters. I question the "heroic firefighter" discourse - though I value heroic acts - as I think it creates a false understanding of the complex and professional work that female and male firefighters do everyday. The best firefighter is an alive one - and the mark of outstanding response is a "no firefighter down" mind frame. Managing risk on the fire- and incident ground is not about heroism - it is about professionalism, skill, capability, decision-making, leadership, recognition, skillful deployment and staging of resources, excellent Comms, and so on. Although at times (and thankfully) heroic acts do occur at times - sometimes by bystanders who may be the first responders, sometimes by emergency services personnel including police, firefighters, paramedics, and others.
Through my work I do not aim to create female firefighter heroes. Rather, I am to create a story that confirms that females have long involvement in the institution of firefighting, and this can be understood on it's own terms.