From ‘Women And Children First’ To ‘Every Man For Himself’

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A friend was telling me about Downton Abbey, the British television period drama series that’s taking the world by storm. It won big at the Golden Globes and my husband and I will be watching it soon thanks to the wonders of Netflix. Anyway, my friend was saying that the whole premise of the show is unimaginable sexism. Basically, laws prohibited estates from passing to female heirs and since both male heirs of Downton Abbey dying unexpectedly, the estate goes to a distant third cousin. And there’s nothing the daughters can do about it.

Now, why did the male heirs die? Well, they were on the Titanic. And in those days, of course, it was “women and children first.” Most of the women on the Titanic survived whereas most of the men lost their lives saving the women’s. That’s why Downton Abbey lost its heirs. In fact, 74% of the women on board the Titanic were saved and 52% of the children, but only 20% of the men. Even the women in the bowels of the ship had a better survival rate than first class passengers who were males. These are fascinating and sobering statistics.

Now cut to 100 years later and we have stories coming out of the Costa Concordia. There’s no comparison of the two disasters in terms of loss of life, but much of that is due to felicitous circumstances such as the temperature of the water and the rescue operations located nearby. Still, I get the feeling that some women were hoping the “women and children first” mantra would rule the day while some men had no use for it. x (It was never a legal requirement but did have cultural importance for a while.) Take this account from an Australian paper:

AN Australian mother and her young daughter have described being pushed aside by hysterical men as they tried to board lifeboats on the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship.

Michelle Barraclough, 46, of Melbourne, said she and husband John Sultana clutched on to their 12-year-old daughter Katherine to keep her by their side during the mayhem as 4000 passengers tried to cram on to lifeboats and flee the violently listing vessel.

“It was every man for himself,” Ms Barraclough said.

Now, what’s the problem? I hope women have figured out by now that you don’t need to scowl at men for opening the door or offering seats on the metro — although that was certainly a problem when I went to school. But after years of being told that such acts of chivalry are demeaning to women, it’s kind of weird to be held to a different standard when it comes to orderly evacuation from a capsizing boat, no?

Now, I’m sure that both men and women acted hysterically during this event. We haven’t heard too many stories of heroism — particularly from the captain, who abandoned the ship mid-evacuation. But it is interesting to compare with accounts of the Titanic disaster. As National Review‘s Rich Lowry mentions in his column this week:

Guys aboard the Costa Concordia apparently made sure the age of chivalry was good and dead by pushing it over and trampling on it in their heedless rush for the exits. The grounded cruise ship has its heroes, of course, just as the Titanic had its cowards. But the discipline of the Titanic’s crew and the self-enforced chivalric ethic that prevailed among its men largely trumped the natural urge toward panicked self-preservation.

Women and children went first, and once the urgency of the situation became clear, breaches weren’t tolerated. The crew fired warning shots to keep men from rushing the lifeboats. In an instance Daniel Allen Butler recounts in his book, “Unsinkable,” a male passenger trying to make it on one lifeboat was rebuffed and then beaten for his offense.

The Titanic evacuation was known for its orderliness in the face of death while the Costa Concordia evacuation was nothing short of a goat rodeo. Do you think the lack of chivalry contributed to the chaos? Does it matter?