On the 104th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, it is well to remember it for a number 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 the men aboard Titanic were expected to sacrifice their lives for women. 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.
In 1912, chivalry was a powerful, overriding social influence, just as it is today. But here's the difference: in 1912, both chivalry's practitioners and beneficiaries knew and acknowledged that chivalry was an important societal force. In 2016, both chivalry's practitioners and beneficiaries know it doesn't comport with modern notions of gender relations, so they rarely acknowledge it exists. We were more honest about gender in 1912.
Here's an example of the honesty back in 1912: 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 they simply 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 chivalry, but their reasoning had more leaks than the famous ship that sank. 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)
In claiming that 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. Who would have guessed?)
In short, the suffragettes 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 upward to the Sky.
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."
The men’s chivalry was widely acknowledged, and applauded. The views trivializing the sacrifice of the men did not play well. The headline for an April 20, 1912 New York Times story was openly disdainful of the suffragettes:
SUFFRAGETTES DENY CHIVALRY ON TITANIC
“Women first” Is the Universal Rule, says Sylvia Pankhurst, and This Is No Exception
SACRIFICE IS SCOFFED AT
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:
TO THE BRAVE MEN WHO PERISHED
IN THE WRECK OF THE TITANIC APRIL 15 1912
THEY GAVE THEIR LIVES THAT
WOMEN AND CHILDREN MIGHT BE SAVED
ERECTED BY THE WOMEN OF AMERICA
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).)
J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the company that owned Titanic, famously survived the disaster synonymous with the name of the ship, 104 years ago today. Ismay was widely accused of cowardice because he took a seat in a lifeboat that, many believed, should have gone to a woman.
A newspaper article written shortly after the Titanic disaster talked about the “armchair hero” who would sooner sit in judgment of the men who did not lose their lives on the ill-fated ship than applaud the contributions of those who did. The article explained:
“‘Women and children first,’ is the rule of the sea. In the case of the Titanic, it was ‘Women, children, and pet dogs.’ But the armchair hero would press this rule so far as to veto the escape of any man at all. It is probable that many men died rather than face the armchair hero, who would demand explanations from them of their cowardice in daring to be alive. Perhaps this explains why some of the boats were not filled. The armchair hero is not appeased by the appalling death-roll of men. He asks for more. Surely this is sentiment gone mad, chivalry gone to seed.”
Now, more than 100 years after Titanic, in important ways, we are far less honest about gender than we were when the mighty ship sank. In 1912, society freely acknowledged 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; the special government programs that assist girls in school but not boys even though boys need more help; and the fact that there are numerous programs that assist women breaking into the the business world while there are no programs that assist men breaking into the domestic world. 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 the suffragettes did — we deny it exists, or 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 so widespread it’s 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 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. 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.”