Women and Children First! (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

Remember way back in March, when I promised we’d take a closer look at Doug Phillips’ views on Titanic? Well, that day has finally arrived. Unfortunately, we won’t actually get to talk much about Titanic, for two reasons. First, Phillips took the first forty minutes of his fifty-three minute lecture to actually get around to a direct discussion of the sinking, so we don’t have that much more information about his views than we did before. Second, given the sea change of the past week, there are much more important matters to discuss. So that being the case, let’s get the small potatoes out of the way now.

More holes than Swiss cheese

550px-NCI_swiss_cheeseWhen he finally does get around to discussing Titanic, Phillips refers the disaster as “the closest thing we have to a modern day Bible story” and claims, essentially, that the sinking was God’s punishment for the arrogance of White Star officials.[1] He then proceeds to confirm many of my previous suspicions, mentioned in my critique of his lecture Manliness. In that critique, I pointed out that Phillips ignored the impact of class distinctions on passenger survival rates. In Women and Children First!, he alludes to this problem, but only as a straw man with which to pillory director James Cameron and the 1997 Titanic film:

Mr. Cameron would have you believe that there was class warfare between the first and the third class…

Phillips also made a point of explaining that steerage accommodations on Titanic were far superior to steerage accommodations on other vessels. Thus, his only response to the widely divergent survival rates between first class and steerage, is to avoid the actual statistics entirely, paper over the problem with irrelevant misdirection about the quality of the rooms, and then lump any and all discussion of class under the inflammatory heading “class warfare” (I suspect solely for the purpose of playing on his target audience’s fear of all things Marxist).

As an antidote to Phillips’ buzzword-slinging, let’s take a look at the actual facts of this situation. (I’ll be using John Henderson’s page Titanic: Demographics of the Passengers, which has a wealth of statistical and other info, and also highly recommend the Encyclopedia Titanica site.) First, the survival rates by class, some of which I quoted before in Manliness:

For instance, 97% of first class women and 86% of first class children survived, compared to only 49% of women in third class (steerage) and 31% of steerage children. In fact, over half of all passengers in first class (62%) lived compared to only a quarter of the passengers in steerage – even though steerage passengers comprised a third of all passengers and first class comprised 24.5%.[2]

Survival rates drop around 20 percentage points each time you go down in class, ranging from 62% in first class, 43% in second class[3], and finally 25% in steerage. But these are just the bare statistics. Far more interesting are Henderson’s historical notes on class distinctions:

3. The issue of Women and Children First is often mentioned regarding the Titanic, and it was strictly adhered to one side of the boat, but what is seldom mentioned is that the lifeboats were launched from the First Class decks first, the Second Class decks second, and there were no decks or lifeboats dedicated to the Third Class.

6. Steerage passengers had rooms on lower decks F and G, with some exceptions, and no direct or immediate access to lifeboats on the boat deck. Many steerage passengers who survived did so only by reaching the last of the lifeboats that were launched.

8. By law (passed for public health reasons), gates separating steerage passengers from the other passengers had to be locked. Back then steerage passengers were equated with emigrants who were equated with disease and pestilence.

10. There is contradictory evidence about the degree of physical restraint used to keep Steerage passengers from getting to the lifeboats. In addition to the reports of gates being locked and passageways blocked by armed guards, testimony by at least one steerage passenger indicated there was no such restraint.

11. Annie Kelly, an Irish steerage passenger, said that the stewards not only did not wake the steerage passengers with an alarm but told alarmed third class passenger who came up to the deck to go back down as there was no danger.

12. Colonel Archibald Gracie testified at the American inquiry that a “mass of humanity” poured up onto the boat deck only after all the boats had gone.

Ah, yes. It seems there’s a lot Phillips didn’t tell you. As someone with immigrant ancestors who probably came to this country in steerage (or its equivalent) on other vessels, it irritates me that Phillips feels it’s all right to simply gloss over this information with the assertion that, well, steerage was just so much nicer than on other ships. I’m sure that was of little comfort to the steerage passengers who finally arrived on the boat deck only to find that they had no hope of escape.

Finally, as a segue into the rest of the post, let’s examine Phillips’ claims in light of Henderson’s notes on the idea of “women and children first”:

2. A “Women and children only” rule was applied on the port side of the ship. It is not clear whether or not the “Women and children first” rule was applied on the starboard. Men comprised the majority of passengers aboard the First Class starboard deck lifeboats, but there was testimony that the men did wait until no more women were present or willing to get on board.

3. Over half of the women in steerage perished.

4. All of the lifeboats launched from the starboard First Class Deck had more men than women aboard.

5. Who was a child was relative depending on class. For example, 14 year old Lucile Carter in First Class was considered a child, but a 14 year old Annie McGowan in Steerage was considered to be an adult. …

7. Less than a third of the children from steerage survived.

As we can see, there are factors even here which Phillips does not address. Class distinctions are clearly still operative, for one, and even the definition of a “child” is fluid (though to be fair, Phillips never defined “child” either). There’s also this sad account, related on an Encyclopedia Titanica forum thread about Titanic’s impact on women’s suffrage:

Remember Mr Navratil, aka “Mr Hoffman”? He’d boarded the Titanic alone with his two toddler sons.

Even though there was no mother or other woman on board with him to take charge of his sons in the lifeboat, no exception was made for him and he was not allowed to join his sons in the boat.

Though he was estranged from his wife, as far as anyone knew on the ship, he was a widower and the boys would have no one after the sinking, if he were not permitted to go with them in the boats.

Yet, those loading the boats preferred to make orphans of the boys, rather than adjust the rules to the circumstances. They saw that obdurately sticking to the rule, however maladaptive it was in this circumstance, as more important than making sure the boys continued to have a parent.

To me, this was one of the more needless deaths that night.

This forum contributor has unwittingly nailed the problem with Phillips’ views. Phillips preaches “women and children first” as a universal rule that we must teach our sons, but never mentions any other factors that could be in play. Is it right to leave two little boys alone, simply for the sake of maintaining a “principle” about gender roles? Should the father in this scenario really be labeled “cowardly” or “selfish” if he gets in the lifeboat with his sons? I would answer no to both those questions. What about Phillips?

But there are even deeper problems here. Throughout the lecture Phillips equates “women and children first” with the Biblical idea of the strong sacrificing for the weak. Now certainly, in many cases it could be this, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation where it could easily be the opposite. For instance, I am a healthy 23-year-old female. If I approached a restaurant beside a frail 90-year-old man with a walker, who should open the door for whom? Common sense dictates that I should open the door, because the old man may be physically unable to do so himself. “Women and children first,” however, would seem to indicate that the old man, out of a sense of “chivalry,” should open the door for me! And since, in that scenario, I am the strong one, not the old man, how on earth does that qualify as the strong sacrificing for the weak?

Cognitive dissonance

So after all this talk of “women and children first,” this inquiring mind, at least, wants to know how Doug Phillips himself lives out this all-important principle. His views on abortion seem like a good place to start, since that debate intimately involves not only women, but also the most vulnerable and helpless of all children, the unborn. But as I pointed out in my critique of Manliness, when we examine Phillips’ views on abortion we find a rather confusing contradiction:

Whereas those theories which justify the killing of the unborn child on the basis of the circumstances of conception (as in the case of rape or incest), or even the life of the mother (ectopic pregnancies) are completely false because they are based on unbiblical and humanistic ethics, unbiblical definitions of “self-defense” theory, and a rejection of the personhood of the child…[4]

Wait. So we are to abide by “women and children first,” yet when it comes to ectopic pregnancies, which are non-viable in almost all cases, we are to let an innocent woman die a painful, horrific death by organ rupture and massive internal bleeding, thus leaving her children motherless and likely without their primary caregiver?

I realize that this description is graphic, but this is what Phillips’ view boils down to in reality. What’s even worse is that he probably thinks he’s “putting women and children first” by preaching such nonsense. But how can he be? He certainly isn’t putting the woman first, as she’s required to needlessly sacrifice herself for a baby that’s doomed already. And he certainly isn’t putting the children first, as they’ll be robbed of their mother for no good reason at all. The only thing being put first here is Phillips’ opinion about self-defense theory. And if that’s the case, just like the men on Titanic who would not let Mr. Navratil board the lifeboat with his sons, he is valuing a principle over the health and well-being of another person.

We also have to ask, given the events of the past two weeks, how Phillips’ own behavior squares with “women and children first.” Was he putting his wife first when he had an affair for a number of years? His children? Certainly we all fail at many things, sometimes dramatically. But most of the rest of us were not the president of a high-profile family ministry, or traveling the United States teaching others how to be godly husbands and fathers. And thus, we can only watch with sadness, anger and a keen sense of irony, as Doug Phillips, spokesman of “Biblical” patriarchy and “women and children first,” presides over his own personal, self-inflicted Titanic before our very eyes.

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. –Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Vision Forum Sinks

[1]If any one of a dozen things had taken place, Titanic would not have sunk and she would simply be a little tiny footnote in history. But it wasn’t God’s plan. You see, the men aboard the Titanic, the leaders of the Titanic and many others who were behind the ship, not so much the men on board the Titanic that day – had literally thumbed their fingers at God in many respects. And they, by saying the boat was unsinkable, by saying the boat was the finest thing, by saying that nothing could touch it, that even God couldn’t touch it – by embracing the statements that others were made [sic] and claiming it for their own, they essentially did the equivalent of challenging God to a duel. Guess who wins when you challenge God to a duel? Not a good thing to do.

[3]This is despite the fact that steerage had more survivors numerically than second class (172 vs. 117), because steerage had over 400 more passengers.


2 comments on “Women and Children First! (TBB)

  1. Leila says:

    Last month I was on vacation and visited the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, TN. It was, bar none, the best museum I have ever visited in my life, and I include the Smithsonian museums in that (I live an hour away from them). You get a good sense of what people’s lives were like among all the classes and there is quite a lot of biographical information available about many of the passengers. You can also see clearly how if you were a 3rd class woman or child, you didn’t have nearly as much a chance of survival as a 1st class man. There were many heroic deeds on the Titanic–especially among the crew, who had the absolute lowest rates of survival–but “women and children of all classes first” was not among them. While most men were willing to put their lives ahead of the women and children they loved, I doubt they were willing to “do unto the least of these” and let those of the lower classes get in line ahead of them. It just didn’t happen.

  2. Sue says:

    This is a fabulous analysis and analogy. Bravo.

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