“Women and Children First”: An age-old anti-feminist myth

I’ve written a lot about Vision Forum, and about their fetishization of the Titanic, and this week I came upon something of a bombshell. You see, that whole “women and children first” thing is a myth – a fabrication – originally created in order to combat the fight for women’s suffrage. When Vision Forum touts the “chivalry” of the men on the Titanic, it not only perpetuates a lie but also uses this lie to do the same thing the lie was created in 1912 to do – fight against women’s rights. Let’s start with Vision Forum’s use of the Titanic icon, then move on to the myth and the reality, and finish with the way the myth was created and used both then – and now – to oppose women’s rights.

Vision Forum, the Titanic, and Chivalry 

I heard over and over again growing up what a good deal Christian Patriarchy is for women – they get to be honored and protected and provided for. For example, Doug Phillips of Vision Forum had this to say of his Titanic centennial celebration this last April:

Every element of the Titanic 100 is designed to leave your family with stories they will retain for the rest of their lives, inspiring them to remember the heroism of the past and to embrace a fundamental principle of Christian civilization—that women and children are to be honored and protected.

In fact, sometimes this protection and honor is emphasized to the extent that it almost sounds like men are getting the worse end of the deal – I mean, they have to be the ones doing the protecting and providing, being willing to sacrifice their lives for their wives and children if need be. Websites like Ladies against Feminism emphasize this sort of thinking. Sure, under Christian Patriarchy women give up their right to make their own independent decisions, but that’s okay, because men look after women! They put women first! They protect women! They are chivalrous! With such protectors, why would women need the ability to make their own decisions?

And the Titanic is used by groups like Vision Forum as proof of this. And trust me, it comes up a lot.

The Myth and the Reality

Well, I just came across several interesting recent studies. In one, a group of scholars looked at survival rates in over a hundred ship wrecks over the course of three centuries. The conclusion? “Women and children first” is a myth. The idea that the captain goes down with his ship is also a myth. They’re simply not true. The survival rates are highest for men and for the crew, and lowest for women and children.

But what about the Titanic? Didn’t more women than men survive on the Titanic? In a word, yes. But the Titanic was not some sort of norm. It was an aberration, and another study explains why it was an aberration:

We show that the survival patterns from several maritime disasters, including Titanic, can be explained by the behavior of the captain. Women have a survival advantage only when the captain orders that women should be given priority and threatens disobedience with violence. Otherwise women will have lower survival chances.

In other words, more women than men survived the wreck of the Titanic not because the men of the Titanic were all “chivalrous” and men back then naturally put women first, but because the captain of the Titanic ordered that women and children would be put on boats first, and had his crew enforce that at gunpoint if necessary.

Creating the Myth to Oppose Women’s Rights

If the Titanic was an aberration and “women and children first” was a myth, then why did the idea become so pervasive? If it’s not true, then why is it seen as a truism that back in the day, before the rise of feminism, women and children were given the first chance at the life boats? When asked this question, one of the scholars researching this issue gave this reply:

The Titanic has been so extensively studied, and it confirmed the myth. There was little empirical evidence against it. Lucy Delap of Cambridge University argues that this myth was spread by the British elite to prevent women from obtaining suffrage. They said, “Look at the Titanic. There is no reason to give women the vote because men, even when facing death, will put the interests of women first.”

You see that? Men will put the interests of women first, so why do women need to vote, or, you know, have equal say in family decision-making? Women don’t need rights because men will naturally take care of women, and put women’s interests and needs first!

In other words, the “women and children first” myth was created in order to argue that men naturally protect women and women therefore don’t need political, economic, or social equality. 

But even back then, not all women bought into the myth.

The Edwardians were confronting a new idea – that women might not want to be put first in shipwrecks; they might prefer equality, not only in rescues, but also in politics and labour markets.  In the early 20th century, feminist and suffragist women were well aware that the myth of male chivalry during shipwrecks was used to exclude them from positions of power in politics and society. They responded to the Titanic disaster with the memorable slogan, ‘Votes for Women, Boats for Men’, stressing that women voters would put human lives above corporate profit in regulating the ocean liner companies.  They emphasised the irony of putting women first in shipwrecks, only to exploit or exclude them systematically in other realms.  And some suggested that the vulnerable – the weak, the elderly, the very young – should precede the strong, whatever their sex.

Women of the time knew that the Titanic disaster was being exploited to keep them from gaining suffrage, and they turned it around. “Votes for Women, Boats for Men.” This wasn’t a statement that women should simply be left to drown when a ship goes down, but rather that if women could vote, women could help pass laws to ensure that ships like the Titanic have enough boats for everyone.

In other words, my Edwardian feminist forbearers argued that women didn’t need men to protect them, and indeed couldn’t rely on men to protect them. They argued, in contrast, that women could protect themselves, and better, if only they were given the political – or economic or social – equality needed to do so. I couldn’t agree more.

Just as feminists a century ago saw supporters of patriarchy use of the “women and children first” myth and fetishize the Titanic in their opposition to women’s equality, we see the same thing occur today in the Christian Patriarchy movement, and especially in the literature and press releases of Vision Forum. And it’s all just as much a lie cooked up to prevent equality now as it was then.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.