Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sexual politics and the sinking of the Titanic

There is a fascinating essay by Thomas Laqueur covering a number of recent books on the sinking of the Titanic in the current issue of the London Review of Books.

He argues that the class analysis of the disaster, as popularised by the James Cameron film, is not well founded. Facilities for steerage class passengers were far better on the Titanic than on most ships and the casualty list defies crude analysis:
The highest mortality rate was not in steerage but among the men in Second Class, who died at twice the rate of men in steerage and five times the rate of women there.
Besides, as Laqueur says, this class analysis misses the big story of the Titanic: gender. He writes:
First-class passengers were indeed 37 per cent more likely to survive than third-class. But men in all classes were 58 per cent more likely to die than women. Since there were three times as many women as men in Third Class and more or less even numbers in First, sexual selection took its greatest toll there. Put differently, women in steerage survived at a higher rate than men in first.
He goes on:
On board the ship Edwardian codes of masculinity were on occasion enforced with insane zealotry. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior survivor of the crew, interpreted the captain’s orders, ‘women and children first’, to mean women and children first and only. No men. He forced boys as young as 11 out of boats.
And this zealotry was self-defeating:
Men on the starboard side fared better because First Officer William Murdoch interpreted the order to mean that men could board if no women and children were waiting for a place. And some men – most important, some lowly crew members and strong labourers among the passengers – sneaked onto boats on the port side when Lightoller was turned away. This was a good thing, because they were able to row the boats away from the sinking ship.
And this chivalry, in many ways admirable, was explicitly used as a way of arguing against women's rights:
Davenport-Hines quotes Churchill’s letter to his wife: ‘The strict observance of the great traditions of the sea towards women and children reflects nothing but honour upon our civilisation.’ And he hoped it would set right ‘some of the young unmarried lady teachers’ – aka suffragettes – ‘who are so bitter in their sex antagonism and think men so base and vile’. 
That view was widespread. ‘When a woman talks women’s rights, she should be answered with the word Titanic, nothing more – just Titanic,’ a correspondent in the St Louis Post-Dispatch observed.
Lightoller, let us remember, was the character played by Kenneth More in the 1958 film. As Matthew Sweet once said, "You almost get the feeling watching A Night To Remember that the ship goes down simply to wipe the smug grin off of Kenneth More's face."

Anyway, does this analysis mean  the price of women having the vote was their being more likely to drown the next time a liner runs into an iceberg?

It is a really good article and well worth reading. After more than a century the Titanic story has lost none of its grip on our imaginations.

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