Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Women and children first? Costa Concordia controversy has precedents in suffragettes' history

The 'men were pushing women aside, and they shouldn't' saga goes on. Woman's Hour today has just aired some useful modern arguments showing chivalry is not the province of just one sex. People help other people anyway, said evacuation expert Ed Galea.

In researching women's history in sea disasters I've found that when men gave women priority as the Titanic sank in 1912 some suffrage campaigners said later they wouldn't have accepted that particular gendered sort of gallant treatment. They wanted equal rights - including the vote - so why would they accept such inequality on a ship? It would have been hypocritical.

Of course right-wing men attacked this 'rebuff':

~~~ GK Chesterton (see pic), the high-profile writer, who was later to be in the government’s War Propaganda Bureau, was outraged that month by the (now untraceable)feminist response and particularly put out by
‘the displeasing incident of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, who, immediately after the disaster, seems to have hastened to assure the public that men must get no credit for giving the boats up to women, because it was the "rule" at sea.
'Whether this was a graceful thing for a gay spinster to say to eight hundred widows in the very hour of doom is not worth inquiry here… What does Miss Pankhurst imagine a “rule” is--a sort of basilisk?
'Some hundreds of men are, in the exact and literal sense of the proverb, between the devil and the deep sea. It is their business, if they can make up their minds to it, to accept the deep sea and resist the devil.
'What does Miss Pankhurst suppose a “rule” could do to them in such extremities? Does she think the captain would fine every man sixpence who expressed a preference for his life?’

~~~ anti-feminist journalist Harold Owen insisted in 1912 that ‘The wreck of the Birkenhead is man’s answer to the cry for equality of the sexes.’He meant that, because every woman was saved, men could say 'See, if we'd given you equality you'd dead now. We save your lives by ensuring you are not equal.'

But as socialist-feminist campaigner Charlotte Despard argued, ‘We want a new conception of chivalry. We want it to go outside the shell of conventional manners ....a chivalry, the reigning principle of which will be reverence for every honest worker, with special regard for the weaker amongst their number.’

Such new chivalry meant respecting women enough to give them the vote, and working on the principle that no one sex is necessarily more or less disposable than the other. Respect for those in the greatest need was the point.

Look out for my book next year: Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas! Yale University Press.
PIC: My art work using logo from Pankhurst's newspaper

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