This topic is genuinely fascinating. There are a vast array of opinions about the concept of 'women and children first'. There are distinctly different ways to analyse it and use it for one side of the argument or the other. This definitely makes it worthy of its own blog post.
In case somebody is out of context, "Women and children first" was the protocol used in the Titanic when deciding who got to use the limited number of lifeboats; it was following the actions of the British troopship HMS Birkenhead during their own catastrophe in 1852 and it was a rule strictly imposed by the captain and the crew during the Titanic disaster in 1912.
It made a massive difference in the survival rate segregated by gender: 75% for women compared to just 17% for men; more than 50% of children aboard the famous ship outlasted the disaster. It is important to note that class played a part too, with only 3% of the women in first class dying, compared to 51% of the women travelling third class.
And of course, in the middle of a social war to achieve women's suffrage, the Titanic became a massive piece of the debate.
The media of the time, mostly male dominated, used it as an argument to dismiss the demands for female vote. Women were portrayed as weak and in need of men's protection; for them the gender roles on the Titanic highlighted clear differences and made it obvious that, during tough times, nature put men there to protect and care for women and women were happy to be protected. They surmised this should also be the way in the political sphere.
Even anarchist Emma Goldman very strongly criticised the women who took the opportunity to be saved and distanced herself from them, although she also pointed out that their part in the disaster "is in keeping with centuries of her training as a mere female." When women are educated to be submissive and follow orders from men, this is the result.
The counter side of the debate had different, sometimes opposed opinions.
- Some women reported that women's lives, as they could rear kids, were more valuable than men's lives in itself, and that was the reason, and not chivalry, to save those lives first (this argument, unsurprisingly, didn't work very well).
- Others stated that the women that actually were saved, mostly first class, didn't represent the suffragist movementand it wouldn't be fair to judge an ideology and set of values for some individuals that didn't share them in the first place.
- Another interesting point of view was the lack of choice for both men and women in the decision. Women were removed of any choice to be heroic - as a survivor from Birkinhead stated, they "were treated as chattels and physically manhandled onto lifeboat" so whether or not the women were saved, they were still powerless. They had "no voice in making and enforcing the laws on land or sea".
Regarding men, despite the media presenting the scenario as a natural reaction of the superior gender and the ultimate evidence that justified the differences in the political sphere, data actually shows that (except in the case of Birkenhead and Titanic) men had the advantage, in maritime catastrophes, with an average survival rate of 37% compared to 27% for women and 15% for children with crew members tending to save themselves and achieving the highest average survival rate of all—61%. It seems true nature tends to be "every man for himself"! In the case of the Titanic it is reported that the decision wasn't freely made, but severely imposed by the captain, with men not allowed in the lifeboats and threatened with violence by officers on the ships.
- The argument about chivalry occupied all the debates; and although some of them rejected the whole concept and idea (they thought that if women had had an opinion in the first place there would have been enough lifeboats for everyone), some others used it to explore the ultimate meaning of it, trying to bring the whole concept of chivalry to the social and political sphere "if we had more chivalry, women wouldn’t be paid half the wages of men".
There were tense times in the gender equality debate and the Titanic was a great opportunity for both sides to put forward their case.
My favourite argument, published in the Woman's Journal, is a boat representing the State and the female vote coming to rescue it: "If you have a problem with a boat carrying lifeboats for only half of the passengers, then how do you feel about a country that protects less than half of its citizens?" Mic drop!
So, as it seems to happen with everything else, the more I learn, the more I reaffirm my feminism. The catastrophe of the Titanic is actually very relatable with the situation today. Feminism fights for social justice (boats for everyone!) and toxic masculinity keeps accusing women’s liberation of every loss and taking an absurd pride for things that they wouldn’t even need to endure in the first place if there was feminism (boats for everyone!).
Feminists don’t want to be pushed into a boat at the price of their own freedom and others suffering. They don’t want overworked bread earners that push them to the perceived comfort of being homemakers, they don’t prefer open doors and dinners paid over choices and respect, because they don't just want to make their own decisions but also build a society in which the victory of some doesn’t mean the failures of others.
Media today is no different from yesterday’s, and I can only imagine the frustration of the lies and the propaganda searching to maximise a disaster for its own interest. But suffragettes resisted, and they kept fighting and we can only thank them for the extra boats they built and it is our job to keep working hard to build some more…
We will fight the feminist battles one at a time until there are boats for everyone.