During the election, there was a lot of talk about “sending us back to the 1950’s.” They spoke in terms of women’s rights, but little did they know that the law we were fighting went back to the 1850’s!
I speak of the unofficial regulation of Women and Children First. When a captain orders a ship to be evacuated, an ancient practice of chivalry mandates that women and children be allowed to board the lifeboats before the men. It was popularized during the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic where a majority of the lives saved during the tragedy were women and children and any men who survived were branded as cowards because, as we have discussed in class, society has deemed that it’s not okay to be a girl.
While this is not even official maritime law and was more of an exception than a rule, that didn’t make the idea any less popular. Dr. Lucy Delap of Cambridge University debunked the famous myth and discovered that the whole idea was made up as a way to keep women from voting.
In the early 20th century, feminist and suffragist women were well aware that the myth of male chivalry during shipwrecks was used to exclude them from positions of power in politics and society. They responded to the Titanic disaster with the memorable slogan, ‘Votes for Women, Boats for Men’, stressing that women voters would put human lives above corporate profit in regulating the ocean liner companies. They emphasized the irony of putting women first in shipwrecks, only to exploit or exclude them systematically in other realms. And some suggested that the vulnerable – the weak, the elderly, the very young – should precede the strong, whatever their sex.
The romantic idea that we’ve all accepted as truth was used to keep women under, while purporting to keep them afloat.
Ain’t Irony grand?