Women and Children First? A Tale of Two Ships

Albert Mohler

Women and Children First? A Tale of Two Ships

The scenario is well known, and the story still haunts the modern mind. The great ocean liner that was built as unsinkable struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank early the next morning, taking 1,517 of 2,223 lives on board. The RMS Titanic became a parable of modernity -- of the limits of technology and the hubris of humanity. It is also a subject of enduring fascination because of the stories of those who lived and died, known to us because of the fame and fortune of so many on the Titanic.

Less known to many is the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, taking 1,198 of 1,959 lives on board. The sinking of the Lusitania was a major factor in bringing the United States into war against the German Empire in World War I, but it plays a much less prominent role in the American imagination -- largely thanks to Hollywood and its fascination with the Titanic.

But more is at play here, for the two sinkings were notably different in one crucial respect. The Titanic took hours to sink, leaving time for a remarkable human drama on board the sinking ship. The Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes, leaving far less of a human trace in the imagination.

As it turns out, there was another crucial difference. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at the difference in the behavior of the men aboard the two sinking ships. The difference was remarkable. Aboard the Titanic, the men generally behaved with great concern for women and children, doing their best to get the women and children into the precious and insufficient seats in the lifeboats. Hundreds of men died with the Titanic, demonstrating a commitment to put the welfare and lives of women and children above their own.

Aboard the sinking Lusitania, the scene was very different. Women and children were less likely than men to survive that disaster, because the men used their natural strength and speed to take the spaces on the lifeboats, with women and children forced out of their way.

As The New York Times summarizes: "On the Titanic, the study found, children were 14.8 percent more likely to survive than adults, while on the Lusitania they were 5.3 percent less likely to do so. And women on the Titanic were 53 percent more likely to survive than men, while on the Lusitania they were 1.1 percent less likely to do so."

TIME Magazine offers further detail:

The results told a revealing tale. Aboard the Titanic, children under 16 years old were nearly 31% likelier than the reference group to have survived, but those on the Lusitania were 0.7% less likely. Males ages 16 to 35 on the Titanic had a 6.5% poorer survival rate than the reference group but did 7.9% better on the Lusitania. For females in the 16-to-35 group, the gap was more dramatic: those on the Titanic enjoyed a whopping 48.3% edge; on the Lusitania it was a smaller but still significant 10.4%. The most striking survival disparity — no surprise, given the era — was determined by class. The Titanic's first-class passengers had a 43.9% greater chance of making it off the ship and into a lifeboat than the reference group; the Lusitania's, remarkably, were 11.5% less likely.

What accounts for the difference? The researchers looked at several factors, but settled on one that appeared more obvious as they considered the question -- the length of time it took the ship to sink. As the report explains, on the Lusitania "the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic, there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge."

Put plainly, on the Lusitania the male passengers demonstrated "selfish rationality." As TIME explains, this is "a behavior that's every bit as me-centered as it sounds and that provides an edge to strong, younger males in particular. On the Titanic, the rules concerning gender, class and the gentle treatment of children — in other words, good manners — had a chance to assert themselves."

Note carefully the assumption here that "the rules concerning gender, class and the gentle treatment of children" are ascribed to "good manners" and "socially determined behavioral patterns." In other words, the male decision to give priority to the welfare of women and children is just a learned behavior, a social convention.

Is that all there is to it? There is a huge question looming in this -- is it right for men to act with care and concern toward women and children, or is this just an outmoded relic of Victorian morality?

What do modern feminists do with this? Those who stake their lives on the elimination of all meaningful gender distinctions must, if honest, take what they see on the Lusitania as the inevitable result of such a worldview. Are we really to believe that the moral call that makes men act against their own self-preservation is just a socially-constructed artifact of manners?

Aboard the Lusitania, young males acted out of a selfish survival instinct, and women and children were cast aside, left to the waves. Aboard the Titanic, there was time for men to consider what was at stake and to call themselves to a higher morality. There was time for conscience to raise its voice and authority, and for men, young and old, to know and to do their duty.

The Christian worldview based in Scripture explains this in terms of God's revelation of moral order within the structures of creation, and especially in what we call conscience. Even in our fallen state, this moral knowledge speaks to us, and there is a moral knowledge within us that calls us to do what we otherwise would never do -- even what is plainly not in our direct self-interest.

A secular worldview has little at its disposal to explain all this, and is left with some argument based in evolutionary survival behaviors or socially constructed morality. The feminists are in even worse shape in this. They call for a world like the Lusitania, but must hope against hope that the world is really more like the Titanic.

Women and children first. Civilization itself depends upon this kind of moral knowledge. Without it, the entire enterprise of human civilization is destined to sink beneath the waves.


I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at mail@albertmohler.com. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AlbertMohler.

Sindya Bhanoo, "How the Men Reacted as the Titanic and Lusitania Went Under," The New York Times, Monday, March 1, 2010.

Jeffrey Kluger, "Titanic and Lusitania -- How People Behave in a Disaster," TIME Magazine, Wednesday, March 3, 2010.

Trey, Savage, and Torgler, "Interaction of Natural Survival Instincts and Internalized Social Norms: Exploring the Titanic and Lusitania Disasters," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 1, 2010. [Abstract only]

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