Women and Children First? Down with the Ship?

There’s been a lot of debate going on this week about the behavior of the men–both the crew and the passengers–of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship.

Part of the controversy concerns the behavior of the ship’s captain, one Francesco Schettino. Schettino not only wrecked the ship by going too close to the island of Giglio in order to salute an old colleague on shore and show off his boat, he also abandoned his ship instead of being the last one off, as has traditionally been considered the duty of a captain. Amazingly, Schettino has excused his behavior by saying that he didn’t mean to abandon the ship, but that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat and couldn’t get out! Reportedly, when the Italian Coast Guard ordered him back to the ship, he refused to go.

Rich Lowry of The National Review contrasts Schettino’s behavior with that of the captain of the Titanic:

A century ago this spring, as the Titanic entered its death throes and all its lifeboats had been launched, Capt. Edward Smith told his crew: “Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Now it’s every man for himself.” One witness recalled seeing him, probably washed overboard, clutching a child in the water as the Titanic disappeared. A member of the crew always believed it was Captain Smith’s voice he heard from the water after the Titanic was gone, urging him and others on: “Good boys! Good lads!”

But the main point of Lowry’s column is to criticize not just the captain, but all of the male passengers, who trampled over the practice of allowing women and children to get to safety first:

An Australian mother and her young daughter have described being pushed aside by hysterical men as they tried to board lifeboats. If the men of the Titanic had lived to read such a thing, they would have recoiled in shame. The Titanic’s crew surely would have thought the hysterics deserved to be shot on sight — and would have volunteered to perform the service.

Women and children were given priority in theory, but not necessarily in practice. The Australian mother said of the scene, “We just couldn’t believe it — especially the men, they were worse than the women.” Another woman passenger agreed, “There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats.” Yet another, a grandmother, complained, “I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls.”

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.

Because of this chivalrous ethic, more men from first class died on the Titanic than women from third class.

Lowry argues that the abandonment of this tradition signifies a degradation of manliness:

The Titanic went down, they say, to the strains of the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” as the band courageously played on. It lent a final grace note to the tragedy. Today, we don’t do grace notes. We’ve gone from “Women and children, first,” to “Dude, where’s my lifeboat?” As the women of the Costa Concordia can testify, that’s a long way down.

Meanwhile, over at Slate.com, Brian Palmer has given us a bit of history about the tradition of saving women and children first (a fuller history of this practice would make a good Man Knowledge article on AoM, methinks):

In her book Women and Children First: 19th-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity, English professor Robin Miskolcze chronicled the origins of our maritime evacuation priorities. Until the second half of the 18th century, it was widely believed in England and America that God decided who would survive a shipwreck, so no one criticized men for climbing over whoever stood between them and safety. However, as Enlightenment thinkers began to emphasize human agency, and women came to be viewed as the holy protectors of the family, news reports grew critical of men who survived shipwrecks that killed female passengers.

Three disasters solidified the principle of women and children first in Britain and America. When the HMS Birkenhead went down in 1852, the soldiers reportedly stood at attention while the women and children were loaded into life boats. The overwhelming majority of the men died in an act that contemporary writers called “a piece of pure and exalted manhood.” Two years later, there was a mad scramble on the decks of the American ship SS Arctic as it foundered near Newfoundland. The press branded the male survivors cowards for failing to save even a single woman or child. American morality was redeemed in 1857, when the crew and male passengers of the SS Central America loaded women and children onto lifeboats at the expense of their own lives. Media reports glorified the gold-rush men who sacrificed their new wealth and their lives in a final act of chivalry. The image of captain William Lewis Herndon calmly smoking a cigar as he went down with his ship became a symbol of American seagoing bravery.

In both articles there is a lot of debate going on in the comments between those who think the lack of duty and chivalry shown by the captain and the passengers evidence our societal decline and the unfortunate results of the blurring of gender roles, and those who argue that if women wish to be treated equally in all other areas of life, then these shows of special treatment should be abandoned as well. One commenter on The National Review article posted this poem which was written by Clark McAdams after the Titanic sunk, showing that this debate is nothing new:

“Votes for women!”
Was the cry,
Reaching upward 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.

So what say you?

Read more:

Dude, Where’s My Lifeboat?” (@National Review)

Abandoning Ship: An Etiquette Guide” (@Slate)

Hat tip to Daniel K. and Mary R. for these links.

{ 122 comments… read them below or add one }

talon1 January 22, 2012 at 9:34 am

Men are not men anymore,women are not women. Men are sheep that let women heard them. No one cares about the old ways, Because of the thought of losing your life over someone elses, man women or child. thats the way this generation feels. I would personaly give up my seat to a woman or child. It may still not be your time to die,and if it is go to your grave knowing you did the right thing.

Rachel January 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I personally don’t think it’s necessary to refer to anyone as “dikes” or “bitches” in order to make your point. Nor is it necessary say that “a lot of the guys arguing for chivalry would be found as cowards.” Keep in mind that you are assessing people you do not know based on a few lines of commentary. This site is about the art of “manliness” and chivalry and gentlemanly conduct is part of “manliness.” A gentleman doesn’t call another man a coward unless he has evidence of such. A gentleman doesn’t call people of either gender “bitches.” And a gentleman doesn’t using insulting language to refer to sexual orientation. I’m not a gentleman – I happen to be a woman – but even I can spot these failings. Whilst bemoaning the loss of character of the modern man, you might pause for a moment and assess your own posts to be sure that you are behaving in such a way as to be a good example and not a discredit to the manly sex. As far as the accusation of cowardice, the ship didn’t sink – it tipped. Able-bodied swimmers weren’t necessarily in danger even if they couldn’t get to a lifeboat; cruise ship passengers understand the “abandon ship” order. From a survivor: “I felt like the disaster itself was manageable,” Smith added, referring to the grounding and tilting of the ship, “but I felt like the crew was going to kill us.” I feel that the tragic loss of life was entirely avoidable if the crew had acted capably, but it’s a stretch to say that a lot of the men who posted here would have been revealed as cowards. It was a frightening situation, to be sure, but I think a good number of people on board that vessel managed to keep their heads and get themselves to safety. Why assume that most guys posted here would have conducted themselves with less courage that the majority of the passengers who survived?

Waylander January 22, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Rachel, from reading your post above I would not say you are a women, but a gentle lady – the oft forgotten female equivalent of address to a gentleman.

Now, stepping avoid from simple flattery: I had the misfortune this summer to be part of the 22/7 terrorist attack on Oslo. A less than pleasant experience despite me having the luck to be some distance away from the site itself, but one that left a lingering impression of how people behave and act in truly desperate situations. It is not similar to a sinking ship, but I still feel the situations are close enough to warrant a bit of comparison. The aftermath of the explosion was more or less dotted with confusion, injuries, and general panic. Yet within this people still took care of each other, administered first aid and phoned in emergencies. Reading the article above with that experience in mind two things stand out to me:

1. The old adage of “women and children first” has now been replaced with “the weak and unable first”, whether that be the children, the old, or the injured. I think this is rightfully so, for in this modern age where we find both strong women and men fighting to be recognised it is necessary to establish a new baseline based on the old, chivalric ideals. When it comes down to it, I believe the stories of young men and women doing their best to help those unable to help themselves represent this modern paradigm shift accurately. It keeps to the old traditions and values, but in a modern and more appropriate manner. This should have been remembered by the men and women of the Costa Concordia, especially by her crew (which I assume was composed of both genders). It is frankly disgraceful that those who can do, did not. I’m not simply saying that as a man, but as a person.

2. Coming from a nation with a long seafaring tradition (most of it spent pillaging others, but let’s ignore that for now :P ) it has always been a case of leading by example, and a captain does this by staying at the helm until everyone else has left. The nature of his duty is such that if he is called upon to do so, he must by necessity be prepared to lay down his life. It is both a great honour to captain one of the great sea-going vessels of today, and a great burden. It would seem the captain of the Costa Concordia failed admirably in the line of duty twice: once by falling into a lifeboat and failing to return to his post, even more so the second time when he refused to board his vessel again when given opportunity to do so (of course, this is assuming the report is correct).

John K January 24, 2012 at 12:32 am

“When the HMS Birkenhead went down in 1852, the soldiers reportedly stood at attention while the women and children were loaded into life boats. The overwhelming majority of the men died in an act that contemporary writers called “a piece of pure and exalted manhood.”

Thanks for sharing that. Incredibly inspiring.

Barbara S January 29, 2012 at 12:22 am

Especially since the ship’s going over was the captain’s fault in the 1st place, he is a great coward and no example to his crew.

Faith Helsby February 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I measure 1.6 m, I can’t lift more than 10 kilos. I am a woman and I know that my muscular capacities and general body strength are less than that of at least 95% of the men around me. I know that if something heavy falls on me I will be less able to lift it off myself and will come out the worst for this. If a man tries to agress me, I like most women will be less able to defend myself than another man. It seems natural that the stronger and more able defend and assist the weaker. I have to also say that men who don’t have a natural tendence to protect those around them (even other men) have missed out on something very important and weaken even more our unstable ‘civilisation’.

Brian February 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm

No man owes anything to any woman or child at any time! You wanted “equality,” you wanted “choice,” there it is in full splendor! Long live free men who will not be slaves! Sink the feminists and church ladies, and their pet males!

Chris Field March 17, 2012 at 10:37 pm

I was unfortunate to be onboard the Costa Concordia during the “accident”. I lined up to get onto the lifeboats but did not push or trample any children or women. However, I did refuse to let any women leapfrog past me in the line to the lifeboat. Women have demanded equality for years and now believe that they can even serve in a frontline military unit. Congratulations to the females, but now they are treated equally they should not think they can pick and choose their equality when it suits them best. As for men “barging into women”, it’s amazing what a panicked mob is capable of. Most of the men that pushed over women and children were probably pushed forward by the crowd of hysterical and cowardly women behind him.

El March 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm

the whole “argument” that women want equality and therefore deserve to die over a man is pure sexist nonsense from men who have hated feminists for so long want to punish them any way they can.

Women and children first existed for a reason. The behavior of the men aboard the Concordia is just an example of how far we’ve fallen as humans.

El March 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Also, women still aren’t treated like equals anyways so the whole argument is invalid. Women and children first. Don’t like it? Then don’t get on a boat.

Christopher April 9, 2012 at 1:28 pm

EI, the burden of proof lies with you. Explain to me why the life of a Woman is more important than the life of a Man.

It should be Children first, after that it’s fair game.

Nan April 10, 2012 at 2:27 am

Equality and the rabid screaming of “feminism has ruined the world” is a load of codswallop. Children, elderly and the disabled first – all of whom should be passengers, the crew (male and female) should be the last to disembark a sinking vessel. If pushing or shoving by the able bodied occurs – male or female – they should be made to stand aside until they calm down. Anyone who pushes someone aside (again male or female) is a coward. The Titantic was a different age, I don’t need someone to stand aside for me but if someone pushes me whilst I wait patiently expect me to also call them a coward.

Richard April 10, 2012 at 7:26 am

I can’t say exactly what I’d do in such a dreadful situation, but I think “children first” is the most sensible approach (seeing as children have potential for the rest of their lives).

I think the women first idea is outdated and mirrors the “assumption of motherhood” found in family law courts across the world. The idea that mothers will be better parents than fathers. If anything this can be countered by saying men as “protectors” or breadwinners would better provide for a child were one partner to die (perhaps having greater financial security/shelter provision). I’m not saying either one is right just that its foolish to “presume” without the whole facts.

Also the justification for the rule that women are the procreators and so are more valuable in terms of evolutionary theory really has little standing. Not all women want kids, some may even be infertile; so should fertile, child-wanting men take priority over them? Its ridiculous either way you look at it. And the cowardice argument, surely that could be applied to many of the women who took priority over men, or is cowardice a male-only trait?

I’m not sure on the idea of chivalry, and whether its truly linkable to manliness. I think in the modern age and in line with women’s (well earned) equality, “respect” and politeness to BOTH genders is the new “chivalry”, not unquestioned natural privilege for one gender. I personally would hold a door open for either men or women, especially those struggling.

I’ll leave you with one interesting conundrum, are gay men expected to be chivalrous towards men or women?

John July 26, 2012 at 2:51 am

I’ve read a few comments on here that say that the men who’ve pushed past women and children were cowards and that this is proof of how we’ve fallen as a society.
To that I say this:

There were women who also pushed past and they aren’t called cowards. Anyone in a situation like that might react in a number of ways but to only pick out the men and only call them cowards is complete sexism.

And the comment that men are using feminisim as an excuse not to put them first in itself is sexist. So bascially you’re saying men are here to serve women. No, feminism isn’t about equality (at least not these days), it’s about fighting for women and anything for men should be ignored.

And to the comments that things aren’t equal to women these days so so flawed and incorrect. Things have changed.
To all those women who called the men in this situation cowards (and don’t say anything about the women): You are a sexist, you probally think men caused all the evil things in the world completely ignoring all those evil women who’ve killed, etc. I bet you never brought up the men’s point, ie why do men have to pay on dates, be chivalrist, etc. You only look at the things expected of women in the past yet don’t look at the things that were expected of men. Men had to work in the coal mines, steel industry, etc to feed their families while women got to stay at home (even the ones who didn’t have any kids) and all the money and food that were provided men had to work for. If men plotted against women why the hell were so many more things expected of men (and STILL are, women get to choose to stay at home or work, men still are expected to work, to take care of the woman WHY?!)

Men were expected to take care of women and women were expected to take care of men. Feminists stated this is an ideal from the so-called patriachal society and they said this isn’t equality. Things are still expected of men but to say that a woman should take care of men, feminists, call it sexism.

It should only be “children first” nothing more nothing less. Men and women SHOULD be equal and this is equality.

Peter August 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Its FUNNY in 2012 Woman are equals, and with that Men have the same equality, so instead of just standing next to a life boat get it in and make it go. You think just because your body has a vagina your entitled to be first. Screw that welcome to 2012, welcome to life, no body wants to lose it, and chivalry is not dead, but someone dying is hardly chivalry, Fittest survive and with a new generation of men finally being equal to woman, woman need to get off the soap box and accept being equal, that means an equal number of deaths from woman and men on boats.

Matt November 18, 2012 at 2:02 am

Hey it’s equal rights.

You see chivarly is indeed a nobel concept but only works when reciprocated by submissive women who acknowledge the protective role of a man.

But today we have equal rights and feminism, a spitefully obnoxious ideology of hypocrisy and female entitlement. Let them go down with the ship. Save the chidren, their innocence has not yet been tainted by this vile ideology, so they don’t deserve to die.

The best way to find out if someone really wants equality is to give it to them.

Carol December 13, 2012 at 8:55 am

I was living in Italy at the time of the Concordia debacle. It didn’t surprise me much, having become closely acquainted with Italian culture. Pushing others out of the way and needing to be first is quite the norm. That’s the way Italians drive cars and walk on the street. Italian culture has a very strong sense of family but almost no sense of community. Their homes will be immaculately kept on the inside, while garbage piles up around the outside. I am sure it was shocking for the foreigners on board the boat to see the less romantic side of Italian social norms, but there is is….

Chelsea January 8, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Christopher, John, Peter, Matt… If your mother and sister (assuming you have one) and your daughter (assuming you have one) were on a boat with men who were physically stronger and able to dominate over your loved ones, you’re telling me it’s fair game?

Your whiny and disgusting ideology is exactly why I will be raising my sons to be leaders and examples among the lost and spineless masses of boys who incorrectly label themselves as men.

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Emil June 23, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Women wanted equality,they can have it.Chivalry is nothing but male enslavement.

Alan July 30, 2013 at 11:53 am

I’ve just stumbled on this article after watching the Concordia documentary on BBC. I have to say, I was discussed at the lack of professionalism coming from the crew & captain. Reading some of theses comments, regarding woman should look after there selfs was… Well, as a man! I’m offended. Today’s society has really been watered down. Our generations are becoming weaker & weaker sadly. It should be a matter of common sence & the decency to put others weaker than your self first !! To meny people out for them selfs.

ND August 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm

I was brought up to be a gentleman to open doors for women and pull out chairs blah blah blah. What did I get in return not that I was expecting anything in return I was looked at as some of these women walked in like what is my problem or like it was my duty to do so other times I was talked down to by these same women and told they can open their own doors. So I say the he’ll with them. They ate right open your own doors and pull your own chairs they are not better then me but you know what I did not get? A thank you! Where are the ladies? Exactly, my point when there are more ladies in the world maybe I will consider being a gentleman. Maybe, all of you that consider a man’s life less worthy then that of a woman’s. I say and maybe you that are so quick to Judge men to include the White Knights in defense of the so called damsels I’m distress. Maybe, you should all consider when women to include you feminist realize that Chivalry is a Privilege not a Right which you expect from all men then maybe modern men will consider acting once again like Gentleman. I totally agree children first and if it is a female that I know or female family member yes I would step aside for them and any other woman I choose to. I would be doing it as a courtesy not because it is expected of me or society dictates I should. Again like a drivers license or Captain’s license a privilege not a RIGHT! I could what if as well what if some of the men on that ship are the legal guardian of their own kids? So again they are expected and should sacrifice themselves because the woman with kids is a woman? What about his kids and his family? You white knights and entitled females better get a grip in reality and realize that all that nonsense is in the past.
You can thank the woman’s movement and their followers and again the White Knights that support them because they although they consider themselves men are really like Ken dolls smooth between the legs just like the so called damsels they defend.

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