Boats for Women

One of my on-again off-again obsessions is Titanic history. At some point during my life I gained possession of a book called The Titanic: End of a Dream by Wynn Craig Jones. Where’d I get it? I have no idea. But it was one of the things (along with the 1997 movie) which unlocked my fascination with all things Titanic.

The thing I found most interesting about it was that it dealt with the impact the disaster had on American/British society. These were things I’d never thought much about before…this huge knock-on effect.

And one of the ripple effects of the Titanic sinking, if you’ll excuse the actually completely accidental pun, concerned women’s suffrage.

Women didn’t have the vote yet. That wouldn’t happen until 1918 for Britain and 1920 for America. And even then it wasn’t all women. To put it bluntly, it was a terrible time to be female…

…unless you were in one very specific scenario: on board an ocean liner about to sink with limited space on the lifeboats.

And this was a scenario no-one expected to suddenly have SO MUCH relevance. Shortly after the Titanic reached its last resting place, it became increasingly clear that “who gets lifeboats and why” was a question the suffragettes were gonna have to face head-on.

Obviously we in the modern day find this all a no-brainer in the realm of “Every adult gets a vote AND a lifeboat, dummies.” Not so in 1912. Suddenly, the male-run media had the perfect stick to beat those – what words would they have used given the chance? – those virtue-signalling woke vote-wanting libs with. According to End of a Dream, one Clark McAdams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch penned this jaunty taunt:

“Votes for women!”
Was the cry
Reaching upwards
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.

I would like to venture the opinion that Mr McAdams was not a very good poet.

And a man called Reverend Dr Leighton Parks, described on his Wikipedia page as a liberal but I guess one in name only, said-

…the men on the Titanic sacrificed themselves for the women and children. The women did not ask for the sacrifice but it was made. Those women who go about shrieking for their “rights” want something very different.

Ah, those pesky “rights.”

But as one could probably guess by looking at, well, any anti-woman movement over the past few decades, many women themselves were also thoroughly of the notion that the suffragettes should shut up and show some respect to the dead men at the bottom of the sea, even though it was the poor policies of other men rather than women that put them there. I suppose there was a smattering of “Don’t you make this tragedy political!” an utter failure of a concept since all tragedy is political.

A woman called Mrs John Martin – her actual name, as opposed to that of her husband, appears to be lost to history – of the League for the Civic Education of Women wrote that “we are willing to let men die for us, but not to vote for us.” Other women went further. The anti-suffragettes and First Lady Nellie Taft crowdfunded (one dollar each!) a statue to be erected to “male chivalry,” and it’s still around today as far as I know –

Suddenly attendence at suffragette rallies was down and equal voting rights were seemingly even further away. A suffragette named Lida Stokes Adams threw a little more fuel on the fire by suggesting that women aboard the Titanic “lost one of the greatest chances ever presented to aid the cause of suffrage when they didn’t assert themselves and prove they are as courageous as the men.”

Lida Stokes Adams probably wouldn’t have cared much that a century into the future some woman in her pyjamas was criticizing her via a magic box, (though she might have liked that I’m allowed to vote) but – jeez, Adams, victim-blaming much? Because there were many women who proved just that, take Ida Straus for the most famous example. Or Molly Brown, who helped row a lifeboat and urged the men to go back for more survivors. (Historians aren’t sure if she succeeded or not. She gets points for trying though.) But also there were undoubtably countless other women who were extremely courageous and their stories simply never got told. Because they were poor, third-class, and an afterthought.

Every so often there are arguments suggesting we should bring back the kind of chivalry found on the Titanic. Here’s one, for a start. (That’s the Atlantic, so it’s probably behind a paywall now, sorry.) But during 1912 there were of course many suffragettes who said simply, we would have preferred to stay with our husbands on the ship rather than get into a lifeboat and leave them. I do wonder how many of those statements were about honour rather than love.

But I also wonder about “women and children first.” The cutoff age for a “child” back then was much younger than it is now. It wasn’t eighteen, it was more around twelve or thirteen. Many boys of that age, despite being still children, were considered men and they were barred from the boats and died. Part of the anti-suffrage movement was all about promoting women as mothers above all. Yet they believed, apparently, that those mothers ought to be okay with having their sons ripped from them and left to die. What else could the endpoint of that rhetoric be?

Obviously, we know what happened, we know who won. I suppose the last word goes to famous suffragette Harriot Stanton Blatch, who upon being asked what women would have done had the positions been reversed, answered, “We should have laws requiring plenty of lifeboats.”