Margaret Brown – the unsinkable Molly Brown as she became known – was the antithesis of a damsel in distress. As the Titanic began its journey to the icy depths of the North Atlantic Ocean almost 100 years ago, this American socialite lived up to her reputation as a redoubtable women’s rights campaigner. Installed in lifeboat number six, she distributed her clothes to the shivering refugees, argued the half-empty vessel should go back to pick up more people and told the quartermaster Robert Hichens that if he wouldn’t let the women row he would be thrown overboard.
By the time RMS Carpathia – the ship that picked up the weary survivors – reached New York, Brown, immortalised by Kathy Bates in James Cameron’s movie, had been elected chair of the survivors’ committee and raised almost $10,000 for those left destitute by the disaster. Yet, there was an irony at the heart of her fortitude. For Brown, like fellow feminists and Titanic passengers, Helen Churchill Candee and Edith Chibnall Bowerman and her daughter, Elsie – owed her life to the chivalry of the men who, according to the perceived law of the sea, put women and children first.
This tradition – established when HMS Birkenhead ran aground in 1852 and rigidly enforced on The Titanic – meant more than 70 per cent of the women on board survived, compared to just 20 per cent of the men; although social rank was also a factor, women in third class were still 41 per cent more likely to die than men in first class.
This irony was not lost on those who opposed the burgeoning women’s rights movement. They pounced on the chance to discredit the suffragettes, suggesting they believed in equality only when it played to their advantage. Within days of the sinking, the poem Enough Said by Clark McAdams appeared in the St Louis Post-Dispatch. Juxtaposing the lines “Votes for Women Was The Cry” and “Boats for Women Was The Cry”, he implied that when in crisis, women were happy to be treated as the more vulnerable sex.
On this side of the Atlantic, Harold Owens also thundered against feminism. What kind of person, he wondered in a column for the Daily Mail, “would ask for such equality as would have degraded the tragedy to a squalid struggle between proclaimed equals, all fighting ignobly for life in a world from which the code of manliness was banished?”
For the suffragettes, this backlash was difficult to counter: with so many dead, how could they stand their ground without appearing strident and ungrateful? Their dilemma was heightened by the fact that one of their greatest advocates – the pioneering investigative journalist William T Stead – was among the many men on board who shepherded women and children on board lifeboats before going down with the ship.
Some suffragettes, including Sylvia Pankhurst, of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), showed scant regard for the sensitivities of the occasion, asserting that – as “women and children first” was the “universal” rule – the men’s actions were not “chivalrous”, and insisting their sacrifices did nothing to offset the shoddy way women were treated in everyday life.
But, according to Dr Lucy Delap, a director of history studies at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, who has written a paper on Shipwrecks and Chivalry, other feminists took a more subtle approach, suggesting chivalry should be redefined, or arguing that, if women were allowed to participate in the political process, they would introduce laws which would protect both genders.
The Titanic disaster came at a critical moment for the suffragette movement in the UK. Placing their faith in the Conciliation Bill, which was supposed to give some women the vote, feminists had put their campaign on hold. But just over a fortnight before the ship hit the iceberg, the bill was defeated by 14 votes when Irish Nationalists – who did not wish to destabilise the government on the eve of the Home Rule bill – switched sides.
Feelings were running high, both among the suffragettes, who felt let down, and the anti-equality campaigners who, despite winning the battle, realised it was only a matter of time before they lost the war. It was perhaps as a result of being on the backfoot, that traditionalists in Edwardian society had started promoting the concept of male chivalry, a concept Delap says was far from culturally entrenched. Even the “tradition” of “women and children first” was overstated. Though what happened on the Birkenhead was celebrated, there are records of other shipwrecks where the men trampled over women to get to the lifeboats.
Where the survival of women was prioritised, they were treated as chattels, physically manhandled onto lifeboats when they resisted. “It is hard to describe the sensation of oppression which is removed from one’s mind on knowing the utterly helpless part of the ship’s living cargo had been deposited in comparative safety,” as one Birkenhead survivor put it. By the time the Titanic sank, things were beginning to change. Ida Strauss famously refused to get into one of the liner’s lifeboats, opting to stay with her husband, Isador, the co-owner of Macy’s Department store, instead.
The story of her bravery captured the public imagination and raised the question: why shouldn’t women have the same opportunity to choose a heroic fate as the men? Days after the ship sank, Lady Aberconway, founder of the Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union, argued: “This traditional custom is now carried out without the direct consent of the individual men who are thereby doomed to die, or of any wish expressed by women, who no doubt are almost equally deprived of choice.”
According to Delap, the feminist response to the Titanic fell into two broad categories: those who dwelt on women’s special role as life preservers (a populist position which presented chivalry and political inclusion as compatible) and those who suggested the whole concept of chivalry was outdated.
In the WSPU periodical Votes for Women, the editor argued: “Aboard the Titanic, we saw what men can be at the highest; at Westminster we see what they can be at their lowest and most greedy.”
Insisting a mother’s role as a nurturer gave her a different perspective on life, another of the periodical’s editorials suggested, that while men had sacrificed safety to cost-cutting and record-breaking, women would ensure all ships carried sufficient lifeboats. “This was the less challenging approach,” says Delap. “These women still say important things like, ‘if we had more chivalry, women wouldn’t be paid half the wages of men,’ but the more radical move is to say chivalry might be damaging for women.”
Amongst those taking this stance, was Margaret Brown herself. While praising the bravery of the men, she insisted their sacrifice “should never have been required by law or custom”. More controversially still, author Flora Annie Steel suggested that, while the men who gave their lives gained a swift death and eternal glory, the women who survived faced a tougher fate – a lifetime of bereavement and economic hardship .
Delap believes the Titanic represented a watershed moment for the suffragettes. “It marked a moment of maturity because they had the confidence to engage with and take on the mainstream press,” she says.
Within 18 months of the ship sinking, the Cat and Mouse Act had been introduced and Emily Davidson had stepped out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Within six years, the Representation of the People Act 1918 had given the vote to women over 30 who met minimum property criteria and within 16 years universal suffrage (over the age of 21) had been achieved.
Just as importantly, those feminist campaigners who survived The Titanic, went on to demonstrate just how effective a role women could play in public life. Brown used her fame to further the issues she cared about: the rights of workers and women, education and the commemoration of the men who had died, Candee carved out a career as a travel writer and explorer of south-east Asia and Elsie Bowerman became an orderly in a Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit in Romania in the First World War.
Yet today the argument about chivalry goes on. When the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy, stories of men pushing past women prompted comments such as “Chivalry is dead: Feminism killed it.” One hundred years after the Titanic sank, 42 years after the Equal Pay Act was introduced and 33 years after the UK got its first female prime minister, it seems shipwrecks are still being used as a prism through which to view society, and the way men and women behave towards each other remains as controversial as ever.