Has Time Changed the Meaning of Self-Sacrifice?


Has Time Changed the Meaning of Self-Sacrifice?

A Reflection on the 99th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic.

by Davd

April 15th marked the 99th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a disaster in which about 90% of the men passengers, and about 24% of the women passengers, died. The difference between death rates was no accident, and it did not result from women being better able to survive in a freezing-cold ocean—it was intentional and it was honoured at the time as the right thing to happen. As recently as 1955 and very likely more recently than that, it was still considered right and proper that in a sea disaster, women should be saved first, and men saved only after the women, if means remained to save them. Today, we might see that gender privilege differently than it seemed then, because of changes in other aspects of the condition of women.

When a ship is sinking in a freezing cold ocean, preference for a place in the lifeboat is indeed a matter of life and death. It is a privilege, or as my Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary states, “a right or advantage enjoyed by a person or body of persons beyond the common advantages of other individuals.” Women and children were privileged in disasters at sea: If there were too little space in the lifeboats or too little time to load them, the men were expected to stand back and help the women and children into the boats. As the Titanic sank, that is what most men on board, did.1

The sinking of the Titanic is famous because the ship was called unsinkable, because the crew ignored ice warnings and sailed at high cruising speed until the lookout actually saw the iceberg that sank it2, and because there were lifeboat spaces for fewer than half the ship’s passenger capacity (meaning barely half as many people as were on board that night.) It is famous for the large number of prominent men who were on board, and drowned while most of the women were saved.

But it is not especially famous for the sacrifice of those men relative to the women. That sacrifice of their own lives was expected of them. The “Women and children first” rule for loading lifeboats had been British custom for decades. Women and children were sheltered from life’s risks in those years—and from the risk-takers’ rewards. The risks and the rewards were considered to be men’s business. There was an accepted balance to the overall cultural division of labour by gender.

Captain Edward Smith, the skipper of the ship, was among those who died. That was also part of the culture of the sea (as Wikipedia notes), and indeed there is a well known song, “The captain must go down with the ship”.

When i noticed that the 99th Anniversary of this famous disaster was only a few days away, i had two sources for information about it: Wikipedia, which of course is a current source; and a 56-year-old book by Walter Lord: A Night to Remember, published in 1955 by the then Henry Holt publishing firm. (My page number references are from a Bantam Paperback dated 1963, which i have had for years3.) Walter Lord’s book treats the “women and children first” rule as obviously right and proper—as i recall people generally did in 1955, when i was a schoolboy.

Wikipedia states, “The practice arose from the chivalrous actions of soldiers during sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852, though the phrase was not coined until 1860. Although never part of international maritime law, the phrase was popularised by its usage on the RMS Titanic, where, as a consequence of this practice, 74% of the women on board were saved and 52% of the children, but only 20% of the men.” (Wikipedia does not specify that over half the men saved were crew members working as crew of the lifeboats. [p 105])

Wikipedia adds, “Some analysts such as Dr Carey Roberts and Dr David Benatar have viewed the policy of “women and children first” (and conscription) as evidence of what Warren Farrell refers to as “male disposability,” where preservation of a woman’s life is given priority over preservation of a man’s life. Further, this policy, particularly as applied to incidents like the sinking of the Titanic, resulted in high numbers of widows or orphans who might then face economic and social difficulty.”

I would have difficulty imagining Walter Lord writing that in 1955. Times have indeed changed. Between now and the 100th Anniversary of the sinking, when there will almost certainly be widespread discussion of the events, is a good time to reflect on how times have changed, and how men, women, and the “social positions” of men and women are different than they were “when that great ship went down.”

It may be worth noticing that social class as well as gender influenced who was saved: Most of the women and children who died were third class or steerage passengers. Social class was a survival factor, but gender was a stronger one:

Saved Lost Total Percent Lost
First Class women 139 4 143 2.80%
Second Class women 78 15 93 16.13%
First+Second Class children 28 1 29 3.45%
Third Class women 98 81 179 45.25%
Third Class children 23 53 76 69.74%
Subtotals 367 153 520 29.42%
All Men [including crew] 339 1348 1687 79.91%
All Women 315 100 415 24.10%
All Children 51 54 105 51.43%
Totals: 705 1502 2207 <–this total = same as p. 25

[This table is calculated from data given by Lord, pp. 61, 105]

The crew enforced the “women and children first” culture by violence if necessary, drawing pistols to threaten a few “cowardly” men who attempted to get into lifeboats [44]. One boy of 14 barely made it into a lifeboat, over the protests of the crew member in charge of loading, because his parents insisted (his father stayed behind on the sinking ship); another teen-aged boy was dragged out of a boat and left face down on a coil of rope.

Over half the men who were allowed in the lifeboats were crew members whose job it was to navigate them. Among men passengers, given that fact, the best estimate would be that more than 90% died, compared to 24% of women passengers and half of all children4.

That’s a long way from gender equality.

It is also contrary to any notion of “male privilege”: A society that treats women as less than men, would not logically direct men, many of them very prominent men in England, Europe, and America, to accept sudden, painful, early death so that women could survive in the limited lifeboat space. There was immense respect for women behind the voluntary sacrifice of life by so many men, and the crew’s support of women’s privilege. Had women been seen as inferior people, would not the men been given the privilege of first access to survival?

When “gender equality” is used as a basis for demanding action in favour of women, this is one of the privileges women have long enjoyed, that tend to be ignored. The attention, since Feminism took over from racial equality as the social-rights theme of the latter 20th Century, has gone to men’s advantages. Somehow, a few demands that men have equal chance for custody of their children or equal credibility in a his-word-against-hers case in court, have been swept aside, at least until very recently indeed. Lifeboat access? This writer may well be called some rather nasty words and phrases just for mentioning that women are privileged. Respectful consideration of a proposal that men get equal access to survival in a sea disaster—not this anniversary!—nor any of the other 98 since the Titanic went down—though that Wikipedia item is interestingly different from the tone of Walter Lord’s 1955 book.

Let me offer a guess about why: Suppose gender equality is natural to human thought, but equal participation in each little aspect of life, is not—rather, it is most normal for men to specialize in some things, women in others, and for the specializations and privileges of the genders, to balance-out. Women care for babies too young to walk and talk, mostly but not entirely, for instance; and do better on-average at fine detail-work like crocheting and embroidery; men have large muscle strength and grace that enables us to better log and fish and hunt.

Elaine Morgan (1973) observes that women have an intense fascination with and attraction to babies, that men lack. Folklore teaches that when a woman has a new baby, she tends to neglect older children and her husband, which makes the occasion for fathering to remedy both neglects. Exactly equal distributions of activities?—no. Balance?—very plausibly. One might infer from the chivalry that led to 90+% of men passengers and 24% of women dying, that in 1912 women were sheltered and men were doing most of the adventuring. That inference accords with most of the passengers on Titanic being men (many men on board had wives “back home”; few women on board had husbands back-home.)

I cannot witness to life in 1912, but i can report on life half that long ago, and what i saw the year Walter Lord’s book was published, indeed all that decade, was a balance of men’s and women’s privileges that worked out to rough equality.

“In the Fifties” i was a teen-aged boy with no car. I spent many hours walking the “sidewalks” and bicycling the back lanes of the town where i lived, and i saw and heard a lot of working-class family life on those walks and while visiting my friends. What i recall is rough equality of power and respect between husbands and wives. Some husbands bossed their wives, some wives bossed their husbands, a majority of couples had no boss between them. (My mother was a teacher and by the time i reached my teens, she was earning more than my father did. My grandmother was a clergywoman, who died before 1960. My grandfather on the other side was an electrical-mechanical engineer. Determined working- and middle-class women could achieve a great deal in those days which are now called “patriarchal”. Most women were sheltered in the home, and it seemed they chose to be there.)

There was some tendency back-then, to steer girls toward motherhood and boys toward post-secondary education (more often trade-school than university, if i recall correctly; but university student populations were more than half male.) However, the university student participation of girls in 1961, the middle of my undergraduate years, was much closer to that of boys, than the survival rate of men in the Titanic disaster was to that of women.

When each gender has some privileges and some systematic disadvantages, with the privileges and disadvantages totaling-up to roughly the same social weight, the situation can be called balanced. When one gender has all or nearly all of the advantages and the other, all or nearly all of the disadvantages, it cannot. “All the privileges belonging to one side” better describes the difference between the “Negro” and “white” races in the United States at the time of the sinking, than of the genders. Today, there are few if any remaining “white privileges”, though “social inertia” is such that a close reading might well reveal some remaining differences in social and economic success by race.

“Social inertia” is also the main reason that older women lag behind older men economically—they entered adult life when husbands were chief breadwinners, many stayed home to enjoy their babies; and had divorce rates not increased drastically since then, they would nearly all be sharing pensions with their husbands or taking widows’ benefits, now—as indeed many are. Adding privileges to privileges for young women and for girls, will not raise the pensions of older women; even “affirmative action” can affect their last-years-of-work pay rates by only a little. It is among the young that we see the advantages and disadvantages of present social conditions; and what we see indicates that today it is advantageous to be born a girl rather than a boy.

Looking at today’s university student demographics, at the gender imbalance of graduation pictures from law and medical schools and even at the pay rates of young urban men and women, we see that today’s girls and young women are economically and educationally advantaged. They also retain most of the old privileges: Who wins disputed child custody cases? What is the punishment for a false accusation of rape? And if a large passenger ship were to sink today, does anyone believe that men would be given preferential or even equal access to the lifeboats? Men’s privileges are largely gone and women’s nearly all remain: The overall situation is systematic gender inequality—in favour of women.

When women had precedence in the loading of lifeboats and the custody of children, and men had precedence in higher education and the professions, you could call it balance; when women have precedence in all four, it seems more accurate to call it a caste system, with men beneath women. Of course, there are aspects of social precedence and privilege which are not named above—but in which, if any, are men still preferred? If between now and the 100th Anniversary of the sinking, we sum-up the gender relations of 2011-12, will we find the rule that in 1912 was part of a balance, is now part of a deprecation of men? It seems almost certainly so.

Surely there is a better way to restore gender equality, than to make women wait on a sinking ship until all the men have got places in the lifeboats. The hard part of the job, me-thinks, will be for men and women to agree what that better way is—and what constitutes gender equality.

It wasn’t easy for 1348 men to go down with the Titanic, either.


Griffin, John Howard, 1960. Black Like Me. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Signet paperback, 1961.

Lord, Walter 1955. A Night to Remember. NY: Holt. Bantam Paperback 1963, is cited as to pages.
Morgan, Elaine 1973 The Descent of Woman. NY: Bantam.

Thatcher, Virginia S, Editor-in-Chief, 1971. The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Chicago: Consolidated Book Publishers. 
Wikipedia entries, retrieved April 12, 2011: “RMS Titanic”, “ Timeline of the sinking of RMS Titanic, “Women and children first (saying)”.

1More crew than male passengers went into the lifeboats “to man them”, since most of the women and children [quite possibly all] were not sailors. One frightened Irish lad wore a woman’s shawl and sneaked into a boat.

2I am deliberately using the neuter rather than feminine pronoun for the Titanic, contrary to the custom of the time.

3Wikipedia, obviously, has no page numbers—so all bare page number references are to (Walter Lord, 1955)

4It would be difficult to search out why so many children died. The best guess that i can make in the day or two before the 99th Anniversary of the sinking, is that many of those children were boys between the ages of 10 and 20—21 being the most usual age of majority at that time—and from the table, that they were nearly all Third Class.

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About Davd

Davd Martin (Ph.D., 1966, Sociology) has been a professor, a single parent on a low income from a small commercial herb garden, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. His men's-interest essays and blogs have appeared on "The Spearhead" "A Voice for Men", and "False Rape Society", as well as this site.
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