Women's Rights and Women and Children First

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I typed what's below on another thread (General Titanica >> Titanic Interest -- For Women Only)

i/{The Titanic disaster increased the temperature of the woman's sufferage debates. I recently read Walter Lord's "The Good Years". He mentioned a woman's sufferage parade held the month after the disaster. Some women's rights leaders declined to participate, saying it would be seen as disrespectful to the men who honoured the "Women and Children First" command. Other suffragists argued in the newspapers that they would have been willing to die with the men in order to prove their equality, or at least to save the fathers on the ship.

... but its [the Titanic's sinking] effects on women of 1912 in terms of voting rights and how they saw themselves after the disaster, and the well being of female and child survivors who have lost their male head of family (and the female and child dependents of the crewmen who died) are interesting to me. It [sic] would be interesting as topics for discussion.}

So I'll ask my first question here and the moderator may move it to its appropriate place.

Did the Titanic disaster influence the debate (fight for) women's sufferage?

(The right to vote, and thus the right to participate in government and influence the passage of laws that would ensure their right to be treated equally and fairly as adult persons [e.g.: equal opportunity in employment, equal pay for work of equal value, maternity leave* and childcare benefits, equality and non bias in the law and in the courts, etc.]
*Parental leave now, because a newborn's/ new adoptee's father can claim it.)
>>Did the Titanic disaster influence the debate (fight for) women's sufferage?<<

In the short term, the respective sides tried to spin it to suit their causes...so did every preacher and politician on the face of the Earth...but I don't think it had an overwhelming influance in the long haul. Women still got the vote after all. I recall one suffergettes response to some questions asked about this and her response was along the lines of "If women had the vote, Titanic would have had boats for all."

Tracy Smith

That was said by Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of women's rights pioneer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

And, no, I don't think the Titanic had any lasting effect on the push for women's suffrage. By the turn of the century, support for this idea was gaining steam and reached critical mass in the 1910s.
>>That was said by Harriot Stanton Blatch...<<

Smart lady. I'm hoping that snappy comeback would have stopped her antagonist dead in his tracks.

Inger Sheil

Interesting question. It was certainly used as fodder by both sides of the debate - on one hand there was the derisive "Boats for Women",

"Votes for women!"
Was the cry,
Reaching upward
To 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.

Life has many
Little jests
As tests.
Doubts and bitterness
But "Boats for women!"
Tells the tale.

At the other end of the spectrum, some suffragettes argued that the Titanic disaster demonstrated the need for women to participate more fully in public life, opining that if they had done so there would have been more stringent safety requirements.

Given that the accident took place at a time when the debate was at its strongest, it's inevitable that it was used to illustrated various positions. But I agree with Tracy - I suspect that the momentum was such, and positions so entrenched, that while the disaster had rhetorical value to those engaged in the debate it could not stem the tide.
Marilyn also wanted to know and I second this the fates of the widows and orphans of Titanic.
I wonder if all the widows from the sinking of Titanic went back to England or other country of origin or stayed in America? What Became of the children orphaned in the disaster? Were they deported or were they placed in orphanages, adopted or sent to relatives.
I know that the 'fight' for equal rights - for the right to elect lawmakers was seen as the key to get equal rights, and it became a 'fight' - started long before 1912. I know the right to vote was granted in various countries after World War I, after women did "men's work" [sounds like it was more a 'reward' granted than a human right acknowledged, IMHO; but those women showed they could do the work, which did crush the argument that all women had neither brains nor brawn enough.]

Did the Titanic disaster change public opinions about women's sufferage? I think the war did more. The combatants needed workers on the homefront, nurses and ambulance drivers, canteen staff. The women responded - and they were SEEN doing the jobs well, all over in their dozens, hundreds and thousands.

As for Titanic, those already committed for and against used the disaster to bolster their arguments. But I suggest it created fizzures beneath the surface of the debate. Tiny perhaps, but there:

Husbands saying to their wives over the newspaper, "See, dear, what we men do for you women? J. J. Astor gave up his life so some steerage woman could be saved."
And the Missus replying, "Yes, but Mrs. J.J.'s going to bring a fatherless baby into the world, and what's that poor steerage woman going to do without her husband? And what's J.J.'s company going to do without him? Now, if women were running for Parliament, they'd see those ships had enough lifeboats, or if they ran ships, they'd be decent captains who didn't rush hither and yon into icebergs."


"You know, 'Ector, ol' mate? It's not fair those first class ladies getting a boat and our Bill wot looked for a decent job in the States getting drowned because he was a man and in steerage."
"But that's the way it is, Tom. 'Women & Children First!' The tradition of the sea says so."
"B---r tradition! I'm not against mums and their kiddies getting in the boats, but where's it said that a good mechanic isn't as good for a place in a boat as some society woman in first class? And 'Ector, what good has 'tradition' done those poor widows of the crew? Tell me that, if you can. No good at all. They're starving and 'aving to live off charity in Southampton an' their relatives an' everyone else in the parish are in the same bloody pickle so they can't help them. Now if we had universal sufferage --"
"You an' your 'universal sufferage'! Do you want the women to vote? They'll take your job next."
"Don't make me laugh! Women can't do what we do. But I wouldn't mind my old lady tellin' off Churchill or Mersey or whoever about not making laws for all of us, instead of just the upper lot. The way she tells me off. They'd get an ear full."


"I wish I had been as brave as Mrs. Straus, Daisy. She stayed with her husband to the end, and now she doesn't miss him."
"But Minnie, dearest! Harvey wanted you to go into a lifeboat. He wanted you to live."
"But I can't live without him! Why didn't they let him into the boat with me? Men on the other side of the ship were let into boats. You don't know how it's tearing me apart!"

The Titanic's sinking and the loss of life didn't come across in the newspapers as 'just another shipwreck'. Prominent people died. A lot of people died and questions were raised because they died. The sinking lost its news value after a while and died out of public consciousness, but I think it left some psychological debris in the survivors, those who knew them and the drowned, and those who thoughtfully read their newspapers.

Now, other questions. What was the logic behind: "Women & Children First"? What started that 'tradition' or 'law of the sea', and was it a 'law' or even a 'tradition'? Both Mr. Lightoller and Mr. Murdoch gave them first opportunity, so it was not a personal response by one of them.

Children needed their mothers, especially the infants. Why was it important that the children and their mothers get the first, best chance to survive? Why should the men leave last, if they could leave the ship, and the captain last of all?

The Titanic was an up-to-date ship. A safe and sound iron and steel ship that could take on more heavy weather than the wooden immigrant and slave and merchant ships. I suppose in the days before the steamships, the male passengers were obliged to help the crew in emergencies. Was that the reason they stayed behind?

Was it the idea that women and children, presumed to be wailers and weaklings, should not be underfoot? (Unless a girl worked with her dad on the family fishing boat or disguised herself as a boy, she didn't get the sea training, did she?)
Sorry, that 'wailers and weaklings' paragraph was unkind to both genders. I don't think that all men believed all women were wailers and weaklings - just that some men assumed it was so and some women were so.

But did "Women and Children First" have its basis in chivalry? Women and children (at least in countries that saw it so) were considered weak and had to be protected from bandits, enemy warriors, wild animals, etc. by strong males. Or maybe it was just the noble women who were seen as weak. Jeanne d'Arc didn't see herself as weak or inferior because she was a peasant girl. No chivalric code stopped her. Her 'voices' encouraged her, and she persuaded important men to lend her an army, and that army fought under her and won several victories.

So maybe what the polite and good man was supposed to do, taught at nanny's or mother's knee to do and told by teacher and vicar to do, was to give up his seat to a woman - even if it was on a lifeboat.

Tracy Smith

You've pretty much answered your own question, Marilyn, and it brings up a concern I've always had.

Remember Mr Navratil, aka "Mr Hoffman"? He'd boarded the Titanic alone with his two toddler sons.

Even though there was no mother or other woman on board with him to take charge of his sons in the lifeboat, no exception was made for him and he was not allowed to join his sons in the boat.

Though he was estranged from his wife, as far as anyone knew on the ship, he was a widower and the boys would have no one after the sinking, if he were not permitted to go with them in the boats.

Yet,those loading the boats preferred to make orphans of the boys, rather than adjust the rules to the circumstances. They saw that obdurately sticking to the rule, however maladaptive it was in this circumstance, as more important than making sure the boys continued to have a parent.

To me, this was one of the more needless deaths that night.

Moving on to your basic point, we have remnants of the "women and children first" mentality, even today. We hear about soldiers killing unarmed combatants in a village during war, but it's lamented as "Innocent (or harmless) women and children were killed". No one laments that unarmed civilian men were killed, even if such men were elderly or disabled. It is assumed that men are always able to fend for themselves, but women, regardless of their age or physical condition are as innocent and helpless as children and similarly not responsible for their own behavior or welfare, and must be protected in the same manner as children are. Never mind if it's a female soldier against an elderly man in a wheelchair, the idea still persists. You'll know things have changed when the media reports that "Unarmed civilians were killed" and leaves it at that.
On the biographical thread I started several months ago, I mused on the roles of Edith Chibnall and her daughter Elsie Bowerman on the night of the sinking. The two women identified closely with the militant suffragettes who caused such controversy here in England in the run-up to the Great War. Elsie went on to attain a position of considerable influence within the movement - although the subject has been touched upon in an excellent E.T. research article, her activities with the suffragettes (including the Pankhursts) have yet to be fully explored on this forum. Which rather surprises me - the lives of these feisty women would surely provide valuable perspectives on early twentieth-century feminism.

I myself find it interesting that although both Edith and Elsie left the 'Titanic' in an underfilled lifeboat, which they shared with such luminaries as Helen Churchill Candee and Margaret Brown, neither of them are known to have participated in the disputes that raged between Hichens and their fellow occupants of No. 6 prior to rescue by the 'Carpathia'. Still less did they insist on remaining aboard the 'Titanic' with the men!

Perhaps a missed opportunity to win glory for their cause? It is worth nothing that, throughout history, women have not shied away from dying for their political beliefs. Take Charlotte Corday or Manon Roland, for example. Or - even more relevant to period under discussion - Emily Davidson. Yet, as far as I'm aware, neither Edith nor Elsie saw their survival that night as in any way linked to contemporary feminist (or, indeed, Marxist) discourses.
I had a couple of thoughts that I thought would be worth posting on this thread.
Firstly, I was always under the impression that the reason for 'women and children first' was to do with the potential of young life. Children should be saved, and women may well be pregnant,thus justifying the priority. I don't think it as much to do with gender grounds as we may think today. In 1912, women were very likely to be knowingly or unknowingly pregnant, hence the significance of the tradition. If the lives of unborn babies might be at stake then it would be important to recognise that potential.

Secondly, I have been thinking a lot about the fact that definitively there were not enough life boats for all sailing on the ship. This would have been known to the crew, and presumably if imparted to those sailing would have caused panic and desperation to join the lifeboats. I think the restriction of 'woman and children first' may well have gone a long way to ensuring effective boarding of the lifeboats, without widespread panic. Having a set of rules in a crisis is often effective, creating an ultimate focus, and I wonder if without declaring 'women and children first' there may well have been a chaotic and uncontrollable scramble for boats, actually causing many lifeboats to upturn and more lives to be lost. Of course, this argument applies to the possible restriction of third class passengers joining life boats. Without any justification of these events, I do wonder if the rationing of places in lifeboats lead to the saving of more lives than would otherwise have happened.
Another reason may be that the women and children passengers were least likely to have seafarin' training. Men in the prime of life would be strong enough to at least shift objects and pull on ropes. (They should have then let the elderly Mr. Strauss in a lifeboat, but he had his pride.)

Maybe it was also thought that men were stronger swimmers, or that the women and very young children had not been taught how to swim.
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