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The myth of ‘women and children first’

I’m in no way a Titantic enthusiast but like every person alive in 1997, I saw the film. As we all did back then, I also formed an opinion on whether Jack’s decision to let Rose stay on the floating door was an act of bravery and sacrifice, or stupidity.

Everything I know about the Titanic comes from either the movie or a documentary I happened upon a few years back that explained why and how the iceberg could do so much damage.* I remember that in the midst of the romance, drama and action, lay the assumption that women and children would be allowed off the ship first. This expectation transcended the rigidity of the division of the social classes onboard. Based on this notion I assumed that ‘women and children first’ was a long established norm of the sea.

I found out today that I was quite wrong. In fact, historically ‘every man for himself’ was the timeless norm of the sea.

Women have been on the seas for centuries but they do not appear in official records often. Before the 19th century, by far most women on the seas were African. At least one-third of a slave ship comprised of women. A very small number disguised themselves as men to sail as crew. Far more were the wives of the captain. As the 19th century progressed and ships entered the Golden Age of Sail, British women accompanied naval personnel during the Revolutionary Wars, women comprised a consistent portion of emigrant ships to North America and New South Wales, and whole shiploads of female convicts sailed for Australia.

Perhaps it was comforting for these women who braved these long, cramped, and unpleasant journeys to know that the men onboard would look after them in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

When the paddle-wheel driven Solway went down off the coast of Spain in April 1843, all the women managed to make it to the deck but only seven survived. Of the 79 survivors, 51 were crew and officers.

When the Manchester sunk in 1844 all seven of the survivors were crew and all passengers were lost. Then when the Stephen Whitney sunk, only three of the 110 passengers survived with 15 of the 28 man crew.

A survivor of the Orion, a Liverpool-Glasgow steamer said the ‘seamen were too much terrified to do anything’ while the Orion’s male passengers were not any more enthusiastic about helping the women and children. Male survivors outnumbered surviving females by a ratio of three to one. Only one child survived.

There’s a lot more examples in the article but you get the picture. It did not help that the weight of heavy skirts and petticoats restricted women’s movements on the ship and burdened them in the water. Women also tended to try to preserve the lives of children onboard. I expect they were not entirely helpful or obedient in a crisis situation.

The wreck that really captured the public’s imagination (before the Titanic) was the steamer Arctic in 1850. It sailed from England to New York in late September but never showed up. Eventually it emerged that the ship had collided with the Vesta. New Yorkers were horrified when they discovered that of approximately 400 people onboard only 86 survived and not one woman or child was among them. Those rescued included six officers, 55 crewmen and 25 male passengers. One of the passengers stated that the crew abandoned the ship while other passengers were pumping out water. The crew were denounced for cowardice and the Captain’s reputation was severely tarnished.

The source of the notion of ‘women and children first’ is the Birkenhead, a fully loaded transport ship carrying British troops and their families from Cork to Cape Town in January 1852. When it struck an uncharted rock near the African coast, the Captain knew the few lifeboats onboard were insufficient to save everyone onboard. As the people on the Titanic would attest sixty years later, it seems to have taken humans a ridiculously long time to overcome this problem. Anyway, with the ship in danger, the Captain loaded the women and children into three small boats. The Captain then ordered the troops to swim for them. But the army officers countermanded this order. Knowing full well that this would swamp the boats and cause everyone to drown, all but three of the troops remained on the ship until the lifeboats were safely away. By then, the ship had begun to break up and rapidly sink, with the calm and disciplined troops standing on its deck.

The Birkenhead showed that women and children were not always abandoned. This brave act set the precedent for what is considered a law of the sea: ‘women and children first’. However, the survival of women and children ultimately depended on the nature of the sinking. If it was fast and catastrophic they had no chance. If there was a reasonable chance of rescue and ample time for evacuation, they took priority. Ultimately though, when officers, crewmembers, and male passengers were faced with a choice between their own lives or the lives of women and children, ‘every man for himself’ was the more common adage.

Except for Jack of course, who could have fit on the door if Rose had just moved over a little.

* In case you were wondering, the coal hold had been on fire for weeks before the ship sailed. This created a largish weak spot in the hull just above the waterline. When the iceberg hit it, the hull tore a lot deeper and further than it would have otherwise, causing the lockers to flood with water and the ship to ultimately sink.

For more information see:

Burg, B R, '"Women and Children First": Popular Mythology and Disaster at Sea, 1840-1860,' Journal of American Culture 2, no. 4 (1997) 1-9.

Mitchell-Cook, Amy, 'To Honor Their Worth, Beauty and Accomplishments: Women in Early American-Anglo Shipwreck Accounts,' Coriolis 2, no. 1 (2011) 17-33

Miskolcze, Robin, Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

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