Titanic Anniversary: Is a man brave or condescending if he lets women and children go first?
?Women and children first!? Captain Edward Smith yelled to passengers and crew after the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg 100 years ago ? a directive that heralded one of the last great acts of chivalry, of gentlemanly sacrifice in the face of disaster.
And as the statistics show, that directive was followed: 72% of women on that ill-fated ship lived to see another day. Fifty percent of children survived. Just 19% of men made it to safety, and many of those, including ship company chairman J. Bruce Ismay, were initially reviled for appearing to put their own lives before those of women and children.
But not all women were grateful to the men who went down with the ship. ?Women and children first? suggested they were a more precious and vulnerable sex with no self-determination at all, the suffragettes of the day protested. The men got to die a quick death while women were left alone and impoverished.
In the months after the disaster, women pressing for the right to vote were ridiculed and told to remember the bastion of male sacrifice that was the Titanic.
Since the days of medieval knights, chivalry has persisted in literature and lore as an ideal ? a goal of gallantry, pure morals, self-sacrifice, and fighting for what is good. In the century since the Titanic, its definition has dramatically changed to mean little more than a man opening a door for a woman, pulling out her chair, rising when she gets up to leave the table.
Has true chivalry died in a more or less equal society that will soon see women as the primary breadwinners? Like the suffragettes, are we glad to say goodbye and good riddance to an ideal that has been pegged as chauvinistic and out of touch? Or are we nostalgic for that gentlemanly virtue, longing for gallantry in a world that?s seemingly devoid of heroes?
?The Titanic is a milestone for the concept of chivalry, for that notion of women and children first, of the people who are, in its broadest sense, strong in society looking out for the folks who are weak and have trouble caring for themselves and putting them first,? said Scott Farrell, director of the Chivalry Today Education Program in San Diego, Ca. The program teaches young people about universal standards of ethical behaviour through explorations of medieval history.
For better or worse, women and children were at a disadvantage in 1912, he said, and men were seen to be responsible for their care. An event like the Titanic disaster put those notions of chivalry to the test even then.
?It?s all well and good to talk about the noble gentleman and knights in shining armour in the literature and poetry, but when you?re staring the freezing Atlantic waters in the face, does that get put into practice?? Mr. Farrell said. ?And [with the Titanic], we did see a lot of chivalrous, noble, gallant actions in a moment of desperation.?
Not so much on the Costa Concordia, many lamented when they read news reports of the massive cruise ship capsizing on the western coast of Italy back in January.
?Whatever happened to women and children first?? read a headline in Britain?s Daily Mail, the story underneath saying men and crew were scrambling for the lifeboats, women and children be damned. The ship?s captain Francesco Schettino was widely criticized for taking a lifeboat while panicked passengers and crew tried to evacuate (he said he ?tripped? and fell into the rescue craft).
Women and children first has never been a part of maritime law, said James Kendra, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware and director of the university?s Disaster Research Center.
?It was most famously invoked in the Titanic, but apart from that, the idea of women and children first has largely been a cinematic product and a cultural product,? Mr. Kendra said.
Still, the women and children first credo persists in rescue situations, which helps explain the outrage in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia.
Male passengers in the 2009 rescue along the Hudson River in New York City insisted a female crew member be evacuated ahead of them, which somewhat hampered rescue efforts, Mr. Kendra said.
Many cruise lines today still ask that women and children board lifeboats first, he said, something University of Alberta women?s studies professor Felice Lif****z has noticed as well.
?It?s still considered to be a standard notion that women and children deserve more protection. It?s stated in many places [but] it?s not necessarily the reality at all,? she said.
The concept of chivalry (named for the French word ?chevalier? or a man on a horse) is thought by many to have been created by common people, clerics and women trying to reign in the violent tendencies of knights, Ms. Lif****z said. Paired with courtly love ? the idea that a knight would win over a lady by acting bravely ? chivalry became an ideal in the aristocratic class; a code of behaviour to elevate them above peasants, Ms. Lif****z said.
There are more questions today about whether men and women should really have full equal treatment, and that has a lot to do with lingering ideas of what men and women are really like ? case in point, that men are expected to be heroes, said Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. who has researched ?benevolent sexism.?
?During the time of the Titanic, there probably was a lot more pressure on men to say ?Well, of course not, you have to defer to the women and children being saved first otherwise you?re a coward,? whereas today we have a lot more questions like ?If women are men?s equals, what does that mean? Should they still be the protected sex?? I think we?re uncomfortable, at some level, with completely giving that up.?
Women who want a man to give up his seat for her on the bus are often accused of trying to exploit acts of chivalry whenever it is convenient, says Andrea Syrtash, the New York-based author of Cheat On Your Husband (With Your Husband): How to Date Your Spouse.
?It?s not mutually exclusive. You can be respectful of a woman?s ability and independence, you can admire her for these qualities and still be a gentleman,? she said. ?I?ve heard a lot of men say it?s kind of an either or, but it?s not. It?s really an ?and?.?
Women want to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law, she said, which doesn?t mean they don?t appreciate old fashioned romance or feeling feminine.
?Of course most women don?t want to be considered a damsel in distress,? Ms. Syrtash said. ?It?s not that a woman needs a man to do these things, but she may want a man to do these things. It?s not because a woman is weak and feeble, it?s just because it?s generally considered considerate.?
Mr. Farrell, of the Chivalry Today Education Program, said people should drop its association with manners of their grandparents? time and see it as a duty on the part of all people to be respectful and stand up for those deemed weaker and more vulnerable (that doesn?t necessarily mean women anymore).
Others are more pained by how the meaning of the word has so profoundly changed.
?It?s without doubt a word that has practically been bled out of all meaning,? said Brad Miner, author of The Compleat Gentleman: A Modern Man?s Guide to Chivalry.
?It really is, first and foremost, the word of a fighting man ?if you take the sword out of a man?s hand, he can?t be chivalrous.?
People no longer have a sense that they need to put themselves on the line for the things that matter, Mr. Miner said, a loss he traces back to the removal of the draft.
He said while that particular move was good ? people shouldn?t be in the military if they don?t want to be ? something was lost when militarization faded to the background in our culture.
?What I come down to believing is that there is a remnant of men who care profoundly about this, who are willing to put themselves on the line just like those [on the Titanic] who put themselves at ultimate risk that night.?
What do you think? Were you on the Costa Concordia would your husband have insisted that you and your child/ren evacuate before him? Would you want him to? Have things changed so much since 1912 that the idea of "Women and children first" is outdated and insulting, or chivalrous?