Friday, March 5, 2010

Titanic: Its lessons about gender still resonate

Here is the entirety of my lengthy article that appears at Glenn Sacks' site about the gender lessons of Titanic.

In a nutshell: when Titanic sank in 1912, society openly acknowledged and celebrated chivalry. No one pretended it was consistent with gender equality. But one group, the suffragettes, the precursors to modern-day feminists, denied or rationalized away the chivalry clearly manifested on Titanic, much to the disgust of society at large.

Now, almost 100 years later, chivalry is still a potent force in our society affording special treatment to women in countless ways, but we've done a 180 from where we were in 1912: we've adopted the attitudes the suffragettes held in 1912 of denying that chivalry exists.  Their denial -- so marginalized and disparaged in 1912 -- has become the norm in 2010. Denial that chivalry exists is necessary in order to pretend we embrace gender equality. It's a charade. We were more honest about gender in 1912.

Titanic Sinks! 1339 Men, 114 Women Perish!

March 4th, 2010 by Pierce Harlan, Esq.

Titanic is back in the news. It has been almost 98 years since the iconic ocean liner sank, yet we are more fascinated than ever with the ship whose name is synonymous with disaster. It is well to remember Titanic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are its lessons about gender that still resonate today.

For the uninitiated, the disaster struck men much harder than women, because that is the way the men aboard Titanic wanted it. The startling demographics from the disaster are as follows:

114 women died, 324 women survived: 72% of the women survived.

1339 men died, 325 men survived: 19% of the men survived.

A recent study compared the gender and other characteristics of the survivors of the Titanic and the Lusitania, the ship that sank after being torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915. It concluded that a far greater percentage of women and children survived on the former than the latter because the Titanic took three hours to sink while the Lusitania went down in just 18 minutes. "[W]hen people have little time to react, their gut instincts may rule When more time is available, social influences play a bigger role." See here (Los Angeles Times, 3/2/10).

In 1912, chivalry was a powerful social influence, and both its practitioners and beneficiaries knew it. The giant front page headline of the April 16, 1912 Arizona Journal-Miner read as follows: "1800 ARE LOST IN OCEAN . . . Report is That Most of Saved are Women And Children Indicating Chivalry On Part of Adult Male Passengers."

While the overwhelming consensus at the time was to salute the brave men who gave their lives, the sentiments of one group, the suffragettes, were decidedly less laudatory. The suffragettes seemed to understand that special, undeserved privilege for women did not comport with the gender equality they championed. So how did they respond to the chivalry on Titanic? They denied it, of course. They refused to acknowledge that the treatment women received was either special or undeserved. Some of them declared that the propagation of the human race depended on such so-called chivalry, but their reasoning had more leaks than Titanic. This, according to the New York Times, April 19, 1912:

"English Suffragettes of prominence, when questioned as to what they thought of the men who died on the Titanic in order that women might be saved, seem to have manifested a disposition, possibly significant, almost to resent the inquirer's obvious belief that the display of chivalry was magnificent. While the strenuous ladies did not deny that the behaviour of the men was rather fine, they hinted that after all it only fulfilled a plain duty and therefore had not earned any particularly enthusiastic praise.

"As one of the suffragettes put the case, by natural law women and children should be saved first, the children because childhood is sacred, and the women because they are so necessary to the race that they cannot be spared. Another said: 'It must be admitted that the lives of women are more useful to the race than the lives of men."

(New York Times, April 19, 1912)

If women were spared because of their child-bearing duties, the suffragettes never bothered to explain why the many women beyond child-bearing years were also spared while their male counterparts, who were able to produce sperm throughout their lives, condemned themselves to an icy grave and the worst kind of death.

Another suffragette went so far as to suggest that men and women aboard Titanic were, in fact, treated equally, even though the men largely died and the women largely were saved. This was so because the "women, though saved through the noble sacrifice of men, were in the equally hard situation of having to see the ship go down" (New York Times, April 20, 1912) You see, there was no qualitative difference between the sacrifice of the persons who actually gave up their lives and the persons for whom that sacrifice was made. Go figure.

The suffragettes, it seems, wanted their equality but weren't prepared to give up their belief that women were entitled to special treatment, for reasons they couldn't rationally explain.

But most everyone else understood that women were singled out for special treatment on the Titanic, and it was apparent to those who thought about it that such special treatment did not comport with gender equality. Following the disaster, Clark McAdams, columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, contrasted women's desire for the vote with what occurred on Titanic. In significant respects, the poem's words still speak to us:

"Votes for women!"
Was the cry,
Reaching upwardto the Sky.
Crashing glass
And flashing eye-
"Votes for Women!"
Was the cry.

"Boats for women!"
Was the Cry.
When the brave
Were come to die.
When the end
Was drawing nigh-
"Boats for women!"
Was the cry.

Nevertheless, the men's chivalry was widely applauded, and the views trivializing the sacrifice of the men did not play well. The headine for an April 20, 1912 New York Times story was openly disdainful of the suffragettes:

"Women first" Is the Universal Rule, says Sylvia Pankhurst, and This Is No Exception
Jangling Note Disgusts English Nation, Proud of the Way Men Died

Consistent with the prevailing sentiment, and fittingly enough, a 13-foot tall statue in Washington, D.C. erected in 1931 by the Women's Titanic Memorial Association honors the brave men who gave their lives on Titanic. The inscription reads:


The memorial was not without its detractors. "Some feminists criticized the memorial, saying it was inappropriate to not only commemorate but perpetuate the notion of chivalry. Margaret [Molly Brown] responded that she thought it was very brave that some men had chosen to step aside and let women and children live -- but the gesture should never have been required by law or custom."

Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, by Kristen Iversen, Muffet Brown at 226 (1999).

Molly Brown, of course, "got it." If only her kind of rational thinking had prevailed.

Now, almost 100 years after Titanic, in important ways, we are less honest about gender than we were when the mighty ship sank. In 1912, women did not have the same rights as men, but society freely acknowleged the chivalry at work on Titanic.

Today, we claim to embrace gender equality, yet chivaly is alive and well and manifests itself in countless ways -- and we pretend it doesn't exist. Like the elephant in the room, it leaves its imprint on virtually every institution, but it's entirely too politically incorrect to acknowledge. It manifests itself in family law proceedings; the objectively proven gender disparities in criminal sentencing; the lopsided government funding asymmetry favoring diseases affecting women over diseases that affect men; the requirement that only males must register for selective service and that only males may serve in combat; the special government programs that assist girls in school but not boys even though boys need more help, and that assist women in starting businesses but not men. And we could go on and on and on, but you already know this.

Like the suffragettes, deep down we are certain that chivalry can't be reconciled with our enlightened notions of gender equality, so we do what they did -- we deny it exists. We rationalize it away. In 1912, such denial was limited to one marginalized group and was disparaged by society as a whole. Today, denial of chivalry is the norm.

It is no epiphany that the chivalry that manifests itself in our modern institutions is wholly inconsistent with gender equality. This isn't something concocted by men's rights groups; it was apparent even when the Titanic sank. In the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, a smart woman writing about the astounding chivalry of the Titanic's men also couldn't help but notice the decline of chivalry in everyday life. She well understood that chivalry must give way if true equality is to flourish. It is too bad her words aren't etched into the hearts of all who preach gender equality but close their eyes to the chivalry that disadvantages men. Here's what she wrote, less than one month after Titanic sank:

"'Men are not what they were.' The phrase falls from the lips of every woman. In it's train falls the stereotyped indictment: Politeness is a forgotten art; deference to womankind is unknown. In a packed tram, the woman is allowed to stand while the man sits; in a rush for the boat, the woman is shoved aside by the more muscular man; in offices or shop, the girl worker receives no consideration from the man; and so on and so on. The grievance is lengthy...

"Yet it may all be true. Very likely 'men are not what they were' because, you see, women are not what they were, and things have to balance themselves. We decline altogether these days to have a sphere of our own; we walk triumphantly into man's. We not only want, we insist on having, his privileges, his pleasures, his work, occasionally ousting him out of them, in any case sharing them willy nilly...

"But we must remember what Nursie taught us long years ago; you cannot have your cake and eat it, much as you wish to. And if man finds you persistently invading his domain, sharing his pursuits, working as a man, acting as a man, aping man's free and easy arrogance, he is apt to forget, despite your apology for petticoats, that you are not a man. You want to be a free and independent comrade? Well, then, accept the penalties as well as the pleasures of comradeship."

Read it here (Evening Post, 5/11/1912).