There have always been some good feminist messages in The Titanic. An independent Rose defies her parents expectations, refusing to marry for wealth. She casts aside society’s class and gender restraints to dance in 3rd class. She doesn’t let Jack get too cling either. I’m not sure what to make of her dogging on the car deck, but the lady was nothing if not a free spirit.
Talking of the real ship, Titanic captain Smith revealed his feminism when he gave out specific orders to keep men from taking all the life boats. A paper published by Elinder and Erixson titled “Every man for himself!” has found that the policy of ‘women and children first’ saw a children with a higher survival rate than adults and a survival rate of 73.3% for women over 20.7% for men.
This tradition sank along with The Titanic. Elinder and Erixson continued their investigation to find that in 11 out of 18 shipwrecks, women had a significantly lower chance of survival, getting worse in more recent times. With the sinking of the MV Bulgaria in 2011, the survival rate of women was 26.9%, just over a third of 60.3% for men. We shouldn’t pretend that the case is different for British vessels. When MV Princess Victoria sank on the Irish sea in 1953, there was not a single female passenger among the survivors.
In recent maritime history, the survival rate is lowest for children.
Is it fair to give priority to women and children in these disasters? Many people will disagree on the more general principle. If women are seeking equal treatment, they say, why should they have priority like this? More generally, why should men offer to carry things for them, why should women be exempted from conscription?
Without entering into a discussion of gender, we can say without too much controversy that there are biological differences between the sexes. These not only include reproductive functions but also, as a generalisation, I higher level of strength in males. If we are seeking to achieve equality of safety, then we must accept that providing the same level of protection to women will require differences of treatment. A frenzied scramble to the life boats and a fight to the death would mean no female survivors, this is why we seek to avoid it! We could consider this a privilege, but no more than we should say building taller doorways is generally a privilege for men, or providing gynaecologists is a privilege to women.
If feminists start arguing against the provision of prostate cancer screening as sexist male dominance, then perhaps those arguing against difference of treatment would have a point. Captain Edward Smith’s egalitarian behaviour aimed to preserve life, not prioritise it.