(Rich, White) Women and Children First!

When I saw the cover of a homeschooling (Christian) catalog, I knew I was in for a doozy. The cover features two cute white children on the deck of the Titanic with the words “Women and Children First!” above them.

As someone who has seen the Titanic movie more than 3 times in the movie theater, and was able to visit the way cool Discovery Channel Titanic exhibit, I know a thing or two about this.

I wasn’t disappointed when I opened to the first page. “What makes the story of the R.M.S. Titanic so important is the men who lived out the expression ‘women and children first.’ From first class gentlemen to 16-year-old cabin boys, from boiler room workers to Wallace Hartley and his musicians–all perished for women and children.”  [emphasis mine]

While many men gave their lives for women and children, to bestow this honor to every person on the ship with a penis, would be incorrect. First, let’s look at the numbers.


Indeed, 693 males out of the 885 male crew, died. (And for those of you playing at home, there were 23 women part of the crew and 20 of them survived. Why were those crazy bitches working anyway? Shouldn’t they have been home with their kids?!) Meanwhile, 118 of the 175 first class male passengers died. When I think of the men who gave up their seats for the ladies, I usually think of this as being a *choice* of the first class men. I mean, how can you put women and children first when you’re stuck in the boiler room? And let’s not forget the male passengers in 3rd class. 387 of them died. Did they die for women and children? How can you be chivalrous when you are locked down in steerage?

Perhaps you would be surprised to know that women and children died that day. Who were these women and children you may ask? I draw your attention to the number of 3rd class children and 3rd class women who died. 52 children and 89 women died. 52 children! But you know, we could talk all day about numbers and I’m not particularly interested in playing the Oppression Olympics. What I am interested in, however, is how we characterized these deaths.

If male crew and passengers died for women and children, who did the 89 women and 52 children die for? When we celebrate chivalry, we ignore the sacrifices of people of all genders and ages.

But this just isn’t about the Titanic. We can ignore the sacrifices of present day women and children too! Later, the author explains, “…Christians need to understand the choice before them. It makes no sense to speak of women and children first in one breath, and place our daughters in harm’s way in military combat in another.”  113 service women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan–women aren’t even allowed the fight in “combat” in the US army. Moreover, these women were not fighting for men, other women, or children. Like their male counterparts, they were fighting for the objectives of the USA and its allies.

However, maybe the author is onto something. War profoundly affects not only our service people, but civilians as well. Women and children are profoundly affected by war. But instead of using war to support our ideas of masculinity and femininity, we need to realize that the decision to go to war is not putting women and children first. It’s putting them last. And who is going to “celebrate” their sacrifice?

Our author asserts, “How do we reconcile ‘women and children first’ with the spirit of feminism? We do not.” Ironically, we can do a lot of reconciling with feminism and putting women and children first. However, this may put you in an awkward position. Putting women and children first sometimes means giving women access to abortion. It may mean not going to war. It means acknowledging that the majority of people in poverty are women and children. It means acknowledging that women and children who are in your country illegally need to be treated–you guessed it—as women and children first.

The idea of putting “women and children first” is a transformative one. However, it means that we need to take a hard look about how we talk about masculinity and femininity, the rich and the poor and who deserves what and why.

Join the Conversation

  • davenj

    “The idea of putting “women and children first” is a transformative one.”

    It’s also a very sexist one. It treats women as child-like and men as disposable.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ejdoyle/ Emmett J Doyle

    Eh, I’m sorry, but I do take issue with this. Yes, the sacrifice wasn’t completely one-sided, and yes there were factors of class involved, too- that should be recognized. But, that doesn’t change the fact that an awful lot of men really did die, for the sake of women, out of the ideals of chivalry- ideals of chivalry which feminism has traditionally opposed and which, in this case, are also deadly to men. I’m a little disturbed that you take the deaths on the Titanic, which as your own data showed, were heavily skewed against men *even when class lines are corrected for* (Third class: 46% of women and 34% of children survive, compared to 16% of men), and turn it into a lecture about the sacrifices of women. Should the sacrifices of women be recognized? Absolutely. But, on the whole, the Titanic was, as shown rather objectively by the data you provided, a gendered sacrifice- and that gender was skewed against men. Among adults, consider 67% vs 3% in the upper class, 92% vs 14% in the middle class, and 78% vs 54% in the lower class. Statistically and factually, this was a gendered sacrifice. You seem outraged over the death of 89 women and 52 children, and don’t seem to mind so much the death of 387 men. It seems like your greatest complaint here is that it wasn’t a completely one-sided sacrifice. If not, then is your complaint that they failed to acknowledge the death of those women? A fair complaint, but the counter-complaint is that you seem to be actively trying to white-wash the gendered nature of the sacrifice.

    As for the killing women and children in war- yes, nobody holds parades for the dead women and children of the Iraqi people, while they hold parades for American soldiers of both genders (one should note: 113 dead women out of over 4,600 American deaths, is a pretty skewed ratio against men- again, this is an extremely gendered sacrifice). But, the question should be asked- who holds parades for the dead Iraqi men? Who has outrage for the dead Iraqi men? Even in huge parts of the anti-war movement, the death of Iraqi men, whether as part of the resistance to the occupation or as civilians, is ignored. Why should the life of an Iraqi woman shot by a .50 caliber machine gun be worth more in terms of outrage, than that of an Iraqi man shot by the same gun, or that of an Iraqi man who was shot trying violently to stop the American men behind that gun (a man many would celebrate, were he on ‘our side’)?

    You claim the world devalues the dead and abused women and children of war, but I cannot help but be annoyed, that the world raised a hue and a cry over the rape of women in the Balkans, or in Darfur, but seemed less concerned that their husbands, sons, and brothers were killed outright. I have seen many news pieces on the horrors faced by the women of Afghanistan- I have seen very few on the death of Afghan men. Reza et al 2001 and Murray et al 2002 concluded that death rates among civilians are often fairly even for men and boys v women and girls, and we already know that the death rate of non-civilians is overwhelmingly male. Yet, I never hear it emphasized that the civilian deaths included ‘men and children’. It’s always ‘women and children’. I see the news on the massacre recently performed by Robert Bales: “Bales allegedly walked off his base in southern Afghanistan and gunned down the 16 civilians, including nine children and three women”. Nine children and three women- that’s odd… who the heck were the other four people? Could they have been…. men? But, gosh, why didn’t that need to be mentioned or emphasized?

    We do live in a society, where the deaths of women and children (who this mentality places on a same level of self-sufficiency- placing ‘women and children’ together makes as much sense as ‘men and children’) are seen as more important than the deaths of men- men are, in this paradigm of gender roles, an expendable gender (in disasters, in war, and in the most dangerous jobs), and this is part of the exact same gender system that creates patriarchal structures. Women are being placed on a pedestal, while male sacrifice is the flip side of male violence and male power.

    I don’t think we can put women first, at least not in the ‘women and children’ paradigm, and be meaningfully feminist or meaningfully challenging to gender. I know this is a saying used by the anti-feminists I spend a great deal of my time battling (often over this very issue), but you can’t have your cake and eat it, too- if you want to challenge patriarchy, and you want to have equality of the genders, and you want to challenge all forms of dehumanizing gender roles, you can’t expect to maintain the masculine gender role of sacrifical lamb- that role is rooted in the same conception of masculinity as the power-holding, protecting, martial figure that underlies the rest of patriarchy. One cannot fight patriarchy while wishing to maintain a large part of the role of masculinity and the pedestal for women it has constructed. One cannot demand respect for women while framing women and children as equivalent. One cannot demand equality for women while demanding women be placed first. These hypocrisies are completely, absolutely, and irrevocably abhorrent and inimical to any form of honest and principled feminism I am acquainted with.

    • http://feministing.com/members/ejdoyle/ Emmett J Doyle

      Woops, replaced the male deaths in third class percentage with male deaths in crew percentage. It should read 84%, not 78%. Weird how even though they were locked down there, 46% of the women still managed to escape, compared to 16% of men…. but, it couldn’t have had anything to do with gender, right?