The Titanic, feminism and Women and Children First.

Posted: October 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Everyone knows the story of The Titanic. In April 1912 a cruise liner called Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. In the years that have followed it has been claimed numerous times that the ship was noted for being ‘unsinkable’. However, it is disputed as to whether this was actually part of the official marketing and not just a name given to it by the public, or even attributed much later. Point is, as pretty much everybody on the planet knows, 4 days after setting sail, the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. Just type in Titanic on Google and see how many websites come up. It was one of, if not the, worst peacetime maritime disasters.

The thing that sticks out for me is, much like WWI, just how recent it is. 100 years, in the grand scale of human history, is nothing. It’s so little an amount of time that it was only 3 years ago, 2009, that the last of the Titanic’s survivors died. Much like WWI, we are only just entering a period of time where we don’t have some kind of connection to an event that happened over 100 years ago.

So what on earth is this blog about? Surely I’m not just going to write another in a long list of blog entries about the Titanic? No, I’m not. That brief intro was just a way of segueing into this point – ‘women and children first’.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the women and children first rule, particularly in regards to the Titanic. People generally seem to believe it was a law that women and children were to be the first people evacuated if something was to go wrong. Feminists absolutely hate this as they feel it devalues women and portrays them as weak. Some might say they’ve got a fair point, others might say it shows the chivalrous attitude of the times, especially regarding the high esteem women were held in and how their protection was of paramount importance. We already have an idea of the attitude towards men’s lives at that time. If ‘women and children first’ wasn’t enough of a clue, there’s always the rather significant event that followed the sinking of the Titanic 2 years later – World War I. Around 10 million men died in World War I. Another event that is closing in on its 100th anniversary, World War I still baffles me due to the sheer barbarity of it. 10 Million men died. That’s more than the population of some countries.

Anyway, the attitude towards men at the turn of the 20th century seemed to be one of indifference. They were expected to fight and die, they were expected to stay behind and die if something went wrong. What people don’t seem to realise, or are wilfully ignoring, is that when World War I broke out, most of the men that fought overseas couldn’t vote. Feminists make a lot of noise about women only getting the vote in the 1920s, but before that most men couldn’t vote either. In fact, when war broke out in 1914 men under 21 couldn’t vote, that rule only came about in 1918 (along with women over 30). In fact, it was only in 1928 that all women and men under 21 got the right to vote. So, when all is said and done, women and men actually got complete universal suffrage at the same time. Did you hear that, at the same time. Unlike the feminist claim, is men oppressed women’s right to vote because they were incapable of wielding such power, then they did the same to other men. Yet they don’t seem to want to talk about that.

Point is, even if men did occupy a certain level of privilege in the early 20th century it certainly did not stretch to accommodate all men and, ironically, a large portion of the men sent to defend our country were not even able to decide who should run it.

But what does this have to do with the Titanic? Well, I read a feminist blog the other month but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called. The name isn’t as important as what they were talking about – ‘women and children first’. They claim that ‘women and children first’ was never actually a law, and people who use it to demonstrate how women had it easy at that period of time are just ignoring facts to try and discredit the feminist movement (anybody notice the high stench of irony there?!) and show how women actually had it fairly cushty. I did a little research and it would appear that the information from that time is indeed a little sketchy. Some websites claim ‘women and children first’ was indeed a law, some claim it was ‘just the way things were’ and some claim it was absolute rubbish and has only been dreamed up in later years to add a sense of chivalry to a past period of time.

I was on the verge of admitting defeat. I’d always assumed ‘women and children first’ was just the way the world was, and yet now I couldn’t find anything significant that validated my claims. A few bits and pieces here and there, but just as many doubts as clarifications.

But then, a few weeks ago I was out with my family having a meal when I came across a rather interesting sight in the gents toilets. A framed front cover from an American Newspaper (I can’t remember which one, I think the New York Times/Telegraph or something similar) that concerned the sinking of the Titanic. I took a few snaps of the most interesting bits, something that, without me realising at the time, validated what I always knew – ‘women and children first’ did exist.

Image 1
Image 2
Image 3

There are 3 examples of how ‘women and children first’ was used. The first is simply a line that says women and children first, the second says women and children put over in lifeboats and are supposed to be safe on Carpathia and the third is from the main body of the article and says about 655 souls have been saved of the crew and passengers, most of the latter presumably women and children.

This is from a newspaper released in 1912, the exact time of the disaster. Three times on the front cover it states that women and children were ordered off first. The use of language is extremely interesting. The third statement says most of the latter presumably women and children. Now, to presume is to think that something is true without proof or to take something for granted. Essentially, what this newspaper is doing is assuming most of the surviving passengers are women and children. Why would it make that assumption? If women and children didn’t exist as a law, whether a maritime law or not, then why is a newspaper presuming most of the survivors are women and children? Surely they would have cut that sentence out and just left the facts in about the number of survivors? Is it not possible that, even if it was not ingrained in law, society at the time just understood that when disaster strikes, women and children go first?

There’s also another interesting heading. Right above the line women and children put over in lifeboats and are supposed to be safe on Carpathia there is a heading that says “Rule of Sea” followed. What does that mean? What is the Rule of Sea? Perhaps the rule that women and children go first? After all, the Rule of Sea heading is directly above the line that says women and children put over… Could that not indicate that the rule of sea is indeed ‘women and children first’?

Another way of looking at this whole scenario is the way we look at two men in particular. Captain Edward Smith and J.Bruce Ismay. Captain Smith is considered a hero for staying with the ship when it went down whereas J.Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the company that built the Titanic, is widely considered a coward for finding his way on to a lifeboat and surviving. Surely if there was no doctrine about women and children first then Ismay wouldn’t have had to face the public shaming and ridicule he did simply for daring to survive? Why should a man have to face that if there was no ingrained feeling that men should have to stay behind and sacrifice themselves in times of disaster?

Whatever the feminists think of this particular situation, and whether or not the ‘women and children first’ idea was a law or not, it is ignorant to think that it didn’t exist in some capacity. If it was an accepted part of society then maybe it didn’t need to be made law.  There are lots of these ‘unwritten rules’ that exist even today. They’ll never be made into law because they don’t need to be, they are just accepted as part of civilised western society.

I actually think the feminists have something of a point. Women and children first is a pretty sexist way of looking at things. Not only does it suggest women are incapable of looking after themselves, it also demotes men to nothing more than sacrificial lambs who must think nothing of dying just so women and children they’ve never met can survive. There’s nothing inherently brave in this sentiment, there’s nothing to say that we aren’t dealing with a situation in which a group of good, noble men die and a group of selfish, callous women survive. What feminists do is apply 21st Century thinking to early 20th Century society. Who’s to say that women weren’t appreciative of having a society that craved their survival? We know not all women liked early 20th Century society, the emergence of the Suffragettes attests to that, but it’s possible, very possible I would say, that if some women didn’t like 20th Century society some men didn’t like it either. As ever, feminists only ever look at one side of the story.

I did some research on death statistics for the Titanic:

2224 on board

706 survived

1517 died

1347 men died

103 women died


Now, they could be slightly off, but after checking on numerous different sites they seemed to be the most accurate. Why did more men die than women? It’s a simple question that can be answered with a simple answer – women and children first.

I’m actually not a massive fan of women and children first, as I said before it’s dangerous for both sexes. I have no problem with chivalry and, afforded the opportunity for everyone to get out of a dangerous situation, I see no problem with a man allowing a women to go in front of him, but only if there is a secure chance he, too, will escape. By shaming men into staying behind to die, either through a societal acceptance that lowers the worth of their life to nothing but a sacrifice, or public humiliation and embarrassment through the label of cowardice, nobody benefits. Whether it exists in law or not, it is still a thought that pervades our society.

Chivalry should not die. Chivalry is not sexist. Allowing society to think that one person should survive and one should die simply because of their gender is not chivalrous, it is every bit as sexist as the feminists claim it to be, but not for the reasons they so vehemently spout.

Attached are the three pictures I took of the newspaper front cover. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to take a picture of the whole thing. I may do if I ever go back to that same pub.

  1. swanpride says:

    While this is an old article, I feel I should address it:
    The thing with the titanic was that the crew what not really prepared for an emergency. As a result on one side of the boat the rule was “first woman and children into the boats and if there is still space the men”. On the other side it was “only woman and children” (presumably the idea was that this way they would be able to safe all the woman and children). The side I mentioned first rescued way more people than the other one, because the evacuation went smoother overall (there were also a lot of boats which were let down half empty because the crew wasn’t sure how many people the boats would actually carry), and all the boats went down in time (one boat drifted on the wrong side, and a couple of men managed to survive by standing on it).

    There were other problems with the evacuation. Initially a lot of people didn’t want to go into the boats, because they felt that the ship would be safer. The people who had the first “dips” so to speak were the richer ones, because they slept closer to the decks, but especially those were compelled by an antiquated sense of honour and did indeed decide to stay and leave the free seats for other people (if this meant only woman and children or simply other people in general, who knows, but they didn’t even try to go on the boats from the get go).

    As far as I know the “Woman and Children first” rule is most likely born during an incident when a ship sank close to the coast. The thought behind it was that the males had a better chance to swim to the coast than the woman and children (and indeed some managed the feat, a lot drowned, though), which was certainly a logical assumption in this particular situation (I doubt that there were any female master swimmer on this particular ship).. I think in the case of the Titanic, the rule should have been “children first” and then everyone else as fast as possible, because in the cold water, nobody had a chance of survival. But what happened was less about chivalry. It was about a crew facing a situation for which they were woefully ill-prepared.

    • johnsalmon86 says:

      Yeah I’m not trying to suggest that it wasn’t a complete cluster-fuck of a situation. The whole sordid affair is well known for it’s lack of real preparation when it came to the very real possibility of the ship sinking or at least being damaged.

      The point is that some feminists try and say ‘women and children first was not a maritime law’, therefore trying to suggest women and children didn’t get preferential treatment. All I’m saying with this blog is that it didn’t matter if there was an actual law or not, public thinking at the time was that women and children went first in any disaster. I’m not trying to say that the men weren’t chivalrous to do what they did, I’m just trying to say that something doesn’t have to be written in law for it to be societally expected.

      The Titanic sank in the middle of the ocean, on its maiden voyage with no-one really knowing how or why it had happened, I’ve no doubt that it would have been panic stations and the crew would have been under enormous pressure to sort it but I’m just saying that women and children first definitely did exist, whether it was written into law or not.

      • swanpride says:

        Oh, it did exist…not as a written law as far as I know, but it was certainly something present in the minds of the people back then. And, like I said, the difference of rescued people on the two sides of the Titanic actually makes a good point concerning the matter.

  2. vicbethroberts says:

    “Some feminists”? Which ones? Have they written about this? If they haven’t, and are just spouting their unsupported opinion, why would you care about their ignorant opinion or lump all the rest of feminism in with them? If you have a bone to pick with feminism, at least ensure that you’re arguing with the ones who employ critical thinking.

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