Deadly Gender by Daniel Sundkvist

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Philip Hind

Staff member
Sep 1, 1996
Since the dawn of humanity, millions of men have died utterly because of their sex, usually in uniform, but also in times of peace. In newer times, no single incident has marked this so clearly as the sinking of the Titanic.

We have all heard the story about this luxury liner which, during its maiden voyage, met its doom in the shape of an iceberg, and sank with great loss of life. The last of ignorance towards this event, was effectively exterminated by a certain movie in 1998. So the story needs not to be repeated, but it certainly needs a new perspective. One of the main reasons for the large loss of life was not alone the lack of lifeboat capacity, but also the old "rule of the sea"; women and children first. This term is today regarded as synonymous with the Titanic, accepted as a just cause, and even glorified as a courageous part of the Titanic story and history in general. But is what happened on the North Atlantic that night really so justified and courageous? And is it really a fact, or is it a myth that men were refused seats in the lifeboats?
In fact, almost as many men as women survived the catastrophe (323 and 331 respectively). True enough, some of the surviving men were refused lifeboat seats, and were later picked up from the sea. But most of the men (85-90%) were let past the officers guns and into the lifeboats already on the sinking boat deck.
But if one looks at the percentage of the sexes the two numbers represent, something becomes very clear. The 323 surviving men represented only about twenty per cent of the adult men present on the Titanic, while the 331 surviving adult women represented as much as about 75 per cent of the total number of women aboard. The discrimination of men is apparent. What happened?

According to accepted sources, Captain Smith gave an "order" which probably was more a message or a directory rather than an order, of putting women and children first in the lifeboats. But no matter the captain's intentions with this, the officers interpreted it each in his own way. For some, it meant women and children first, and then men if there was room. For others, among them officer Lightoller, the highest ranked surviving officer, it meant women and children exclusively. When he later,' in the inquiry,, was confronted with his actions and by Lord Mersey asked "Is it the rule of the sea?", he answered "No sir, it is the rule of human nature".
Was officer Lightoller right in his answer? Is it in human nature to protect women and children, even if it means dying?

Used at sea the basic purpose for this concept is both logical and upright. It is made under the assumption that men have a better chance to hold on longer while staying in water than women, because they are more physically robust, and of importance at the time,, women’s clothes were very unpractical for swimming. Men could therefore wait for salvation in water, clinging to some wreckage, while the women waited in lifeboats. To get a seat in a lifeboat was not a guarantee for survival, maritime history has proved that.
This however, -could only be successful, providing the water temperature allowed a human being to survive in it for sufficient time to be rescued. In the area where the Titanic sank, the sea temperature was below freezing, between minus a half to two degrees Celsius. And this all the officers knew. They also knew that in that temperature, it didn't matter how physically strong a person was, if he or she was a man or a woman, he or she wouldn't survive long anyway. Despite of this knowledge, they organized the rescue operation after the term, "women and children first", knowing perfectly well that it meant almost certain death for those men not allowed into the lifeboats.

Nothing of course changes the indisputable fact, that there was only lifeboat capacity available for about half the people on board the Titanic. The officers knew this. It was a terrible dilemma, who to save, and who to let be drowned. They had to make a choice, and decided to save women and children first. No one can blame them for that. The women on board had just as big a right to live as the men. The point however is', that the attitude the officers showed towards this 55 guideline". made the whole rescue fatally ineffective. Not only were they indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent men, by lowering the lifeboats half full rather than letting men into them. They also did not succeed in their mission; to save all women and children. Many of the category received a wet grave; of the 548 women and children on board, 159 perished.
In fact, every single woman and child on board could easily have been saved,' and there would still be room left in the lifeboats, for just as many men! The only thing the officers on the Titanic succeeded in that night, was to send the signal, not only to the passengers on the Titanic, but to the whole world then and now, that it is more important to save a woman's life than a man's!

Where did the limit go between men and boys? How young did one have to be, to be allowed to live? Evidence shows, that the limit was as low as thirteen. The earlier mentioned officer Lightoller tried to refuse a thirteen year old boy to enter a lifeboat. Only a protest from the boy's father stopped Lightoller's almost fatal action, and the boy was saved. A fourteen year old boy was not so lucky. An officer made him leave a lifeboat with a gunpoint aimed at the unfortunate lad. And an only nine year old boy was stopped stepping into the lifeboat because he wore a hat which made him look older. The boy's real age luckily became apparent, and he was allowed to proceed.

Many of the surviving men from the Titanic were saved only to have their lives ruined by evil gossip and rumours, started and fuelled by media-made myths about men dressing in women's clothes to get a seat in the lifeboats.
Media immediately made the untruthful impression, that only women and children survived the sinking, and that all men, after having made sure that all the former had left the ship, gallantly stepped back to meet their maker as real men. This picture was probably started and accelerated by a few, exceptional incidents. But generally, of course, this was not the case. The point is, that people at the time read it and believed it,' or at least wanted to believe it was so. They confronted the surviving men with this belief, and thereby put pressure on them,, in many cases for the rest of the men's lives, by indirectly telling them that they were not supposed to survive, or they were not real men.

How then did the men react? Some killed themselves as a direct or indirect result of this, or so I've heard. They didn't bare to live with the shame. Others lived with it, but became reserved, suspicious and aggressive, and in many cases fled to live in isolated parts as was the case with Bruce Ismay. Others omitted to tell their environment about their presence on board the Titanic, and lived the rest of their lives fearing that some former acquaintance would show and recognise them, and blow their secret, or that some old newspaper interview would come out of an old attic chest somewhere.
A woman survivor let herself divorce from her husband, also a survivor, because she couldn't bare to live with such a "coward", who wasn't heroic enough to die for her and the other women.
Common for these men, was that they lived their lives post-Titanic as "half-men", bereaved of their male pride, and partly or entirely excluded from "good society". That they felt ashamed, one can make out of old interviews. Almost everyone stated, that they were saved when "picked out of the water" which, as mentioned, can only be said to be true for about ten to fifteen per cent of the surviving men. Few dared to admit that they were given a seat in the lifeboat already on the sloping boat deck.
It should be said, that this was not the case of all the surviving men. To worry about ones social reputation, is a luxury for the rich. Many men got other things to think about, as soon as they stepped off the rescue ship, Carpathia, in New York. They had to worry about how to survive physically. Perhaps they had lost their work, as their place of occupation now lay at the bottom of the Atlantic? Perhaps the Titanic took all of their money and belongings with her to the bottom? Or perhaps they simply didn't give a damn about peoples opinions, and simply were happy to be alive ("people didn't know what really happened anyway"). There were many reasons not to let oneself hamper by the narrow- mindedness of the contemporary society.
It is about time we make a settlement with this narrow-mindedness, and clean these men of their alleged "crime", which was the wish to live. They were not responsible for Titanic colliding with the iceberg. They were neither guilty in the lack of lifeboats. They were on board the Titanic, believing they had bought tickets for a safe passage across the Atlantic. Their tickets did not say "if needed, you'll have to give up your right to live, so that women and children can". If it had, perhaps some of them would have had second thoughts about going? Few however, if any, pushed women and children aside in the scramble for the lifeboats, when their self-sacrifice actually was needed.

It is on the other side striking, how easily many women pushed the men aside, in the choice between the men and the lifeboats. Without much persuasion, many left their husbands, fathers, brothers or male friends on the sinking ship. Of the 236 women in first and second class, who had free admittance to the boat deck, only sixteen were still on board the Titanic when the last lifeboat left the ship. True, some women demanded powerful persuasion, even force, to leave. Some also had children, and could therefore not think only of themselves. Others again travelled without male companions, but that was at the time seldom. And in some cases, their male travel partners also got a seat in the lifeboat.
But whatever the cause,' these were the exceptions. For the most part, they let themselves, without much protest, be put in the lifeboats. Many of the rescued women later told in interviews, as to defend their actions, that they were not aware of the grave danger, and didn't understand the seriousness of the situation before it was too late. But as Walter Lord writes in his book A night to remember, through the eyes of survivor Lawrence Beesley, the danger could not be misunderstood; "Second class passenger Lawrence Beesley considered himself the rankest landlubber, but even he knew what rockets meant. The Titanic needed help - needed it so badly she was calling on any ship near enough to see."

The first rocket was fired at 12:45 am, about the same time as the first lifeboat hit the Atlantic surface. The firing of rockets was in other words present from the very first moment of evacuation. How could the women then not understand the seriousness, when even landlubber Beesley understood? It is natural to assume that most of them actually did understand. but left their men anyway.
Another sign that the women later felt ashamed of this, is that many, too many, of the rescued women afterwards claimed to have left in the last lifeboat, as to tell the world that they did not leave their doomed fellow passengers so easily. This was however true for only about four per cent of the rescued women. So not only were the men ashamed of surviving, the women too were ashamed. A whole lot of survivors, ashamed to be alive, all because of the "rule of the sea"; women and children first!

As said, one can not blame the officers of the Titanic for their decision to give preference to women and children, when they had to choose. What else was there to choose? Ability to pay, perhaps? The more important before the less important? British and Americans before foreigners? Or they could let the passengers fight over it, and let the winner get the seat in the lifeboat? Of course not. These criteria would have been just as worthy of criticism as the one chosen, if not more. Age perhaps, would have been a more natural regulation, rescuing the young before the old. But then the crew would have to demand identification from the passengers, which of course would be very unpractical within the urgency that existed, and the ethics of it would probably be questioned afterwards. It was therefore easier to decide between dress and trousers. No one would question the ethical in that! (would they?). But the very thought of these men loosing their lives simply because of their sex, something they could not themselves do anything about, and therefore left them helpless, is so reprehensible, it makes me sick!<HR WIDTH=75% SIZE=2>This article (really an opinion piece about discrimination rather than a piece of research) was originally sent for the research articles section but I did not feel it that it was suitable. The author never sent me a revised version so I present it here with no warranty (satisfaction is not guraranteed) I'm off to hide in a deep bunker at the end of my garden specially constructed for such purposes. ed.
Mar 20, 2000
Thanks to Phil for posting Daniel's article; it's a very thoughtful piece; in fact brilliant.

I feel however that, while it stands up well as one modern view of gender roles and their significance in today's cynical society, it does not take into consideration the attitude that I think a lot of equally modern-thinking men (and women) feel toward the issue.

I don't think most men feel, as did our 1912 compatriots, that women are weaker and therefore require looking after. We know better now; we recognize women as powers in business, in politics, in religion, in fact in every sphere in which they were once forbidden.

I believe some may think as I do - that looking after or caring for women (especially in a time of crisis) is an honor due them for the gifts of beauty and love each has given this world. Women may be heads of state or CEOs and stand alongside men in every field. But as bearers of children, literally bringing life and hope into this world, they stand alone. That single fact demands respect; it places them a little nearer to God.

Women are the great comforters, they are the great peacemakers, they gave us each our very breath. They and their example of goodness would be sorely missed by men if they were taken from us.

So, on a sinking ship, why not save women first? One woman's life has more importance in the scheme of things than a million men's could be.

Taking another (and perhaps more old-fashioned) perspective, I have to add that, as a gentleman (or one that tries to be), to me it's just plain good manners to show deference to a lady. Open a door for a lady, pull a chair out for her, and yes, for heaven's sake, help her into a lifeboat if it should come to that. What's the big deal?

May 9, 2000
Only men were responsible for building the ship and only men were responsible to navigate her safely through the sea. Who failed? Only men. It is quite understandable that women and children had to be rescued first.
Jun 4, 2000
While the article is entertaining, it's a shame that Daniel didn't/couldn't (?) take up Phil's offer to edit and revise the item before publishing it on this site. As the article stands, I find it sweeping in its generalisations, under supported by historical fact, seemingly ignorant of social and cultural mores of the time and Euro/Amero-centric in its simplistic depiction of gender issues. While my difference of opinion with Daniel may be par for the course in discussion of opinion pieces (as opposed to articles presenting research, perhaps), it still seems a bit unfair of Phil to publish it prematurely. (Come out of that bunker so I can hurl a batter pudding at you, Hind.)

For those interested, another opinion piece touching of these themes is Ian Jack's essay in Granta 67: Women and Children First (Granta Publications, London, 1999, ISBN 0903141302). Issue 67's title is both literal and metaphorical, the magazine contents examining the breakdown or steadfast adherence to social niceties and the perceived codes of behaviour across a range of twentieth century experiences including the sinking of Titanic, the heroic values of Scott's tragic Antarctic expedition and the more recent NATO bombing of Belgrade.

Jack's essay on Titanic is inspired and influenced by the eponymous Cameron film. Jack starts looking at the cultural phenomenon of Cameron's Titanic and ends up in search of the Wallace Hartley story, the epitome of the middle class sacrifice in the Titanic tragedy - a class not included in Cameron's story. Jack's essay raises many questions about the importance of the middle class ethic of the time and why so many men from second class died in the tragedy.

My disagreement with the basic elements of Daniel's article may be premature under the circumstances of its publication. However, until he offers reasons otherwise I'll be re-reading Ian Jack.

Jun 5, 2004
You are correct on many points but let me say that I don't think you are looking at it quite right.
Let me explain...
Picture this:
You are on an ocean liner that is sinking, but you aren't certain how long before she's going to go down. You also are in the middle of the ocean, and don't know how close anyone truly is to you, or how far away they are.
The urgency of the situation is apparent. Whether it be self appointed, or handed to are in charge of organizing boats that are too few in number to accommodate all of the passengers. There is panic on board that is growing. Fear is in all eyes as you are being looked to for a decision. What do you do?
Each man asked this question would have his own answer...but to answer the question without actually having been IN that situation and without foreknowledge of the events, means to try and give the answer that you think ought be done, not necessarily what you would actually have done. To allow women & children the privilege to escape first, at the time, just seemed the right thing to do. Afterthoughts were a luxury never afforded.
The truth is, with all the panic on board, and the unknown terror of taking a small life boat into the ocean, or to try and stay on the gigantic Titanic until help came, the choices of the majority were probably based out of pure fear or desperation. No one thinks very clearly under those circumstances.
If the men, or women felt ashamed afterwards, they have their reasons why. You cannot force a person to have an emotion, but you can make them doubt themselves. I am sure these people felt guilt for surviving when so many lost their lives. And what about the ones who left their husbands without a second thought. Do you suppose that they were not tortured by their own conscience's?
What an incredible story about the Macy's owner whose wife chose to drown with him because he did not get a seat in the lifeboat. This is a compelling and beautiful story, but doesn't its beauty stem from its rarity...the fact that it was obviously the real love that most dream about, because the actions spoke for themselves?
My point is is not so hard, if you truly consider the situation as though it were happening around you right this moment, to understand why the events unfolded the way they did. It is not a point, I feel, that should be dissected to the level that you have.
Thank you for your point of view, though.

Kyrila Scully

Apr 15, 2001
South Florida
Margaret (aka "Molly") Brown also had similar thoughts, as did many of the women on board who were suffragists (feminists). She stated that it was unseemly that so many women and children should be saved while their breadwinners should be lost. She felt that husbands should have gone into the boats with their families so they would not become wards of the state. She herself had not planned to go into a lifeboat, but was tossed in, according to her testimony, against her will, after seeing other women into the boats. She had overheard Mrs. Strauss and thought to follow her example.
However, the philosophy of man sacrificing his life for woman goes back to Biblical times. The premise was that Man represented Christ and Woman represented The Church, and since Jesus gave His life for His church, so a husband should love his wife and sacrifice himself for her and their children. This is why traditional Christianity eschews the modern feminist movement, because it would corrupt the analogy of Jesus' love for His church, and it would interfere with the protection of womankind that mankind is supposed to supply, as Christ is represented as protecting His church - Man is supposed to follow His example. So it is this mindset that has permeated throughout history for Man to protect and sacrifice himself for Woman. Only in later centuries was it called Chivalry.


Lee Gilliland

Feb 14, 2003
I think that "Women and Children First" is far older than Biblical times - possibly traceable to the very earliest humans. A man can impregnate many females, where a female only bears one (occasionally more, but on the average) child at a time. The reason for the rule, IMHO, is simply survival of the human race, no less, no more.

Beth Barber

Jun 7, 2001
Right or not - I would do anything I could to save my children. When that maternal instinct kicks in - watch out - women can suddenly become lots stronger that they even thought they could be. Children are the most vulnerable. You can't have lifeboats full of children and no parents - so maybe it should have been left for the husband/wives to decide which would go into a lifeboat with their children. I think the officers/captain - did what they felt was the correct thing to do. I don't blame anyone for wanting to live. I certainly wouldn't ostracize anyone. Though, if any adult would push a child out of the way to get into a boat - then they needed to be shot! (ok, maybe not shot but you know what I mean!
) I am not saying anyone did that - we could never really know anyhow.

Just my thoughts - Beth
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