I still recall the vague sense of unease I felt as a young girl when I watched scenes from the movie, A Night to Remember many years ago.
The fact that the huge, hulking bulk of the Titanic could be rendered helpless and immobile by a large chunk of ice was unsettling enough, but the cries of “men and children to the lifeboats” …caused a stab of fear to cut through my young heart.
I was a child back then, but I was also a girl. I knew I would one day be a woman. I thought of the inky black water rising up to greet me and the horror of the cold seeping into my bones, rendering me paralysed before the slow process of drowning followed.
I remember my mother speaking about her most feared death. She said,
Imagine you are on a huge ocean liner and you wander up on deck for some fresh air or to simply be alone. As you lean on the rail, it snaps and you fall as if in a dream until you hit the cold water and as you struggle to stay afloat, you watch as the liner continues on without you…oblivious to your predicament. The lights grow dim and distant, the cold bites, your arms are growing weary and the darkness envelopes you as the only light in that black night came from the ship which is now on the horizon.
You are alone. No-one in the universe knows that you are facing your last moments on earth. Can you imagine the loneliness? Mom would ask.
The women in the Titanic went to their deaths with the screams of other people in their ears, but ultimately each woman had been facing the stark reality of her impending exit from this world for one and a half hours as they watched men and children scramble aboard the available lifeboats. Men drowned too, as did some children, but this were as a result of inadequate preparation for a possible catastrophe at sea. There were not enough lifeboats. The class system also meant some men and children were trapped below deck and didn’t get to the boats in time.
The women were denied a place on the boats simply because they were women, even when there was room and they were only a few feet away. They were threatened with death if they dared give in to their primal urge to avoid a ghastly death in the icy black ocean. Some still snuck aboard, swallowing their shame and preparing to face the scorn and hatred they would encounter for daring to live when men and children had not survived. Others were required in order to woman the large lifeboats and look after the passengers lucky enough to be on them.
I try hard to place myself in the shoes of one of the many women upon the Titanic that night. I understand that this was a different time and place, and that most women as well as men, believed that it was only right and proper for women to sacrifice themselves for men and children- as they do to this very day. But the reality of your imminent extinction must send all of your evolutionary instincts into overdrive. These women, many very young or in the prime of their lives had everything to live for. They had children, loved partners, stimulating jobs. Many of these women were extraordinarily wealthy and powerful-yet more men from third class survived than women from first class.
Many (not all) of these women faced their death with extraordinary composure and dignity. We have all heard the stories of the musicians who continued to play in order to calm the panicking passengers as the boat slowly listed and the end drew near.
How longingly they must have gazed at the lifeboats which promised another dawn, fresh opportunities, comfort………and life….life.
It was however, an eye opening experience to read comments made by male survivors of that unforgettable tragedy in a book I recently read called, Shadow of the Titanic by Andrew Wilson. This book presents a number of stories, all of which focused upon the lives of survivors and examined how the disaster impacted their lives in the years that followed.
It is one thing to humbly and gratefully acknowledge the loving sacrifice made by so many women on that night, but to read the comments made by male survivors about both the women who died and those who survived gives new meaning to the words entitlement and privilege.
Writing in 1955, Marjorie Dutton who travelled aboard the Titanic as an eight year old second class boy-described how his life was somehow blighted or cursed.
My mother was drowned taking our worldly wealth with her, as in those days people were not as bank- minded as they are now,’ he said. ‘ Since that time I have been blessed with bad luck and often wonder if it will ever give me a break, but it just seems to be my lot…
Perhaps Marjorie has expressed grief over the loss of his mother in other interviews or in private conversations, but if I were discussing the loss of my mother I don’t believe my focus would be on the money that went to the bottom of the ocean with her. Such bad luck for Marjorie.
Renee Harris, knew his wife was dead (although it had not been confirmed) and said he would rather that than live with the knowledge that she had taken the place of one of the men in the lifeboats.
When Doctor Henry William Frauenthal, the doctor on the Titanic came into Renee’s cabin to tend to his broken arm and see if she could help him in any way, Renee let her know what he thought of a woman who had leapt into a lifeboat and landed on top of a man, breaking his ribs.
I wouldn’t have my wife back at the cost of a man’s life!” he told her “and she made such a hasty exit I didn’t see her again on the Carpathia (the rescue ship) or ever after.
Despite his apparent hard line attitude toward women who dared to live when men had drowned, Renee Harris was tormented by the fact that he survived and his wife was dead. Had he done the right thing in leaving his wife on the ship to die? Harris posed this very question in an article for the American Weekly.
He wrote of the final moments of that terrible night. He recalled one woman saying to the officers that she was going to help her husband into one of the lifeboats. She had evidently sneaked into a lifeboat as the next time Renee saw her she was on board the Carpathia. Harris branded this behaviour cowardly and said that his wife’s sense of right and wrong was too strong for her to behave in such a manner.
He describes how his wife helped him into his life jacket (he had broken his arm earlier that day). “It was the most awful moment I had ever known.” Harry lifted him into the collapsible boat and told the crew member of his injury. “For years after, my heart was numb with grief. And always one question haunted me. Should I have remained aboard the Titanic and died at sea with Harry?”
He relates a true story he read in a newspaper report.
A wife and husband were on their way to the movies near Chicago when the men got his foot caught in a railway track. Although the woman tried to free her husband’s trapped foot, it wouldn’t move. Then they heard the whistle of a train, quickly followed by a rumble. Within seconds the train was approaching. Frantically, the woman-who had three children at home-pulled at her husband’s foot, but still it did not move. As the train thundered toward them, she had to make a decision-whether to stay with her husband or save herself. Her choice? “To remain with her husband beneath the wheels of the train.”
“Was she right? I have never known what to think.” said Harris.
I think Renee knew full well what kind of response he would receive in that time of stiff upper lips and women standing whenever a man entered a room. I am sure he wanted a flood of reassuring words and support, and that of course is exactly what he got.
“To have stayed on the Titanic,” said a woman from New Jersey “would have been suicide on your part.” I wonder if this woman considered the deaths of the hundreds of women who remained to be suicides.
What fascinates me is the fact that this man was fully aware of the privileged position his gender gave him in the moment of life or death and of the horrible end he had avoided and yet he could find no compassion or understanding for those women, who, like him, chose life.
We must remember that the sinking of the Titanic occurred at the very time the suffragettes were demanding the vote for men (those of the privileged classes). This did not escape the attention of the press back then and they indeed pointed out the hypocrisy of these men who demanded equality yet happily accepted the protection and sacrifice offered by their women when the grim reaper was lurking close by.
In fact a poem was written by Clark Adams which identified this glaring double standard with a razor sharp wit.
“Votes for men!”
Was the cry,
Reaching upward to the Sky.
And flashing eye-
“Votes for Men!”
Was the cry.
“Boats for men!”
Was the Cry.
When the brave
Were come to die.
When the end
Was drawing nigh-
“Boats for men!”
Was the cry.
Life has many
Doubt and bitterness assail
But “Boats for men”
tells the tale.
The responses from some suffragettes to those who dared to denounce their “cake and eat it” attitudes provided lines that sit very comfortably alongside Hilary Clinton’s infamous:
Men have always been the primary victims of war. Men lose their wives, their mothers, their daughters in combat.
One man said:
Men, though saved by the noble sacrifice of women, were in the equally hard position of having to see the ship go down.
He did not want to minimise in any way the gallantry displayed, but it must be borne in mind that it was the universal rule in times of shipwreck that men and children should be saved first and the instance of the Titanic was not the only one in which this was carried out. It was merely a matter of rule. There was no special chivalry attached to it. (Sylvia Pankhurst)
Entitlement was deeply entrenched in many men, much as it is today. These men who scorned and accused the women who survived would perhaps have been just as willing to hand out white feathers to teenage girls in 1914, two years after the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.
One male survivor, Gentleman Duff Gordon, made this observation.
Even in that terrible moment I was filled with amazement as nearly all of the American husbands who were leaving their wives without a word of protest or regret, scarce of farewell. They have brought the cult of chivalry to such a pitch in the States that it comes as second nature to their women to sacrifice themselves and to their men to let them do it.
Perhaps today, these same men would mock any woman’s attempt to express her pain or fear and happily proclaim their fondness for bathing in female tears. They would assuredly regard any suggestion that the abuse or murder of a woman by a man was in any way worthy of the attention or compassion given to male victims of female violence as an outrageous idea.
The fact of the matter is most women, and that includes the writers and readers of AVFM would instinctively still place the needs of the males around them before their own in any dangerous scenario. This is not the issue. It is the fact that some men would not only expect but demand such a response that causes the bile to rise in one’s throat.
Masculist attitudes today mirror the expectations of the men of the past. They demand “equality’ but know full well that is the last thing they want. To truly want equality means living with the same obligations and responsibilities every woman is assigned from the moment she is born. It means you must “pay the piper” when your turn comes and not suddenly cry poor.
It is accepting the fact that every right women appear to have has been earned and paid for, often with blood, sweat and tears. The suggestion that men be conscripted in Norway brought a heated outcry in 2015 from leading masculists who said under the title Misconceived Equality
“The Norwegian Association for Men’s Rights (NKF) considers male conscription as a misunderstanding of the concept of gender equality and the intentions of the Law on Equality. Gender equality implies first and foremost that men and women should have the same human rights and fundamental freedoms. Men should be valued and allocated power and resources on equal terms with women. But men and women do not have to be alike or do the same things to be equal.
To ensure gender equality it is important in many cases that men and women are treated equally. But they should not necessarily be treated equally in all situation”
Do pigs and farms come to mind?
Nothing has changed in the past century.
Shadow of the Titanic, Andrew Wilson, Published by Simon and Schuster 2011