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            Chivalry reached its peak in medieval times in Europe where men were expected to adhere to a strict code of morals and ethics, especially in relations with women. Though its importance waned over the years, by the mid 19th century chivalry was far from dead. In fact, more rules were being added to the rules of knightly conduct even then, one of the most controversial being the mantra of women and children first. This idea was presented by Roberts in Titanic Chivalry, and first popularized by the gallant actions of soldiers during the “sinking of the HMS Birkenhead in 1852 and quickly caught on in emergency situations, especially those at sea” (par. 2).

            The Titanic endured an omnipotent power that no other ship had ever encountered on the deep waters. Thought to have been virtually indestructible it sailed into the icy Atlantic minimally equipped to save about ten percent of the passengers on board. Convinced the great ship was invincible the captain paid little attention to the wavy road ahead. With a great scrub against an icy mountain floating peacefully in the ocean, the Titanic soon began to sink. Having only a few minutes to save less than half the lives on board, women and children were put first. “However it wasn’t here where the fragile state of women and children was established as an important role in society” as stated in Titanic’s history and facts ( par. 7).

By the time the infamous Titanic sank in 1912, the idea had become a de facto part of maritime law. Naturally, the captain of the ship gave the order to fill the lifeboats with women and children first. Unfortunately, as Anesi states, “the officers in charge of boarding the lifeboats interpreted this as women and children only” (par. 5). Some officers allowed men to board only if no women and children were present while others only allowed male oarsmen to board. As a result of this practice, “74% of women and 52% of the children on board the ocean liner were saved but over 80% of the male passengers perished” (par 8).

At first glance, women and children first seem to be the morally and ethically correct course of action in an emergency. In western culture men are expected to display the chivalrous traits popularized by Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Men are supposed to be strong and selfless heroes, safeguarding the defenseless women and children before ever considering their own health and safety. Additionally, any man who dares to disagree with this creed is immediately branded as a coward and discredited, regardless of the validity of his argument.

Women and children first do have some support from the scientific community though. Statistically speaking, adult males are more likely to survive harsh conditions that women and young children. For example, women and children would almost surely die in a frigid ocean while males might stand a better chance of making it through the ordeal alive. By saving the weak individuals first [putting them on lifeboats], there is a higher probability for more individuals to survive overall as some of the men might survive being in the ocean.

One scientist, ethnologist Anatoly Protopopov asserts that a “woman’s life is worth more than a man due to biology and not just arbitrary gender roles”, this same concept is reinforced by Anthroid in his research article Are men physically stronger than Women (par. 2). In terms of the survival of the species, males are expendable while females are irreplaceable. When there is ample supply of women, a single male can reproduce with all of them simultaneously. However, when there is an overabundance of males, a single female can only reproduce about once per year. Thus, it is more important for the survival of a group of refugees to save as many females as possible since an abundance of males does not increase reproductive ability.

The women and children first creed does have its fair share of opponents. Unsurprisingly, many of its opponents are masculists and male activists who believe the doctrine supports the idea of male disposability. Society encourages males to commit suicide to save a woman’s life, lest he be branded a coward. More interesting opponents are contemporary feminists. They believe the doctrine suggests that women are weak, feeble creatures that are unable to react in a calamity. In fact, it suggests that women are just as weak as children during a crisis to the extent that they need special provisions and handicaps in order to survive.

Undoubtedly, there are a plethora of moral and ethical dilemmas faced in crisis situations. Martin relates that “the issue of saving women and children first is just one of many” (par. 4). On one hand, it is practical to save as many women as possible in promote the survival of the colony or even the species. Even the overall amount of survivors can be increased by saving the weaker members first and letting the stronger males fend for themselves. At the very least, there is the issue of what is socially acceptable. There is still an expectation that men should put the life and safety of women before their own. Even the few males that did survive the sinking of the Titanic faced questions about their manhood and accusations of cowardice.

Still, there are good arguments against saving women and children first. Humans aren’t on the verge of extinction and most disasters [especially those at sea] will not result in colonies that need to reproduce for survival. Both male and female activists have objections to the creed. Masculists believe it projects males as disposable while feminists believe it projects females as weak and dependent. And there is also the simple solution of letting everyone fend for themselves, giving everyone a fair chance and letting the strongest and smartest survive.

Saving women and children first cannot be a rule in all disasters; it is simply an option. Chivalry aside, it is unlikely that it is always reasonable to save women and children first. Situations should be assessed on a case by case basis and the most appropriate form of action such as the one that saves the most lives or the most important lives should be taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Anesi, Chuck. “Official Casualty Figures.” Titanic Disasters. Anesi, 1997. Web. 27 July 2009. <http://www.anesi.com/titanic.htm>.

 

Anthroid. “Are men naturally physically stronger than women?” The Chronicle. The Chronicle, 26 Oct. 2006. Web. 27 July 2009. <http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php?topic=30154.15>.

 

Martin, Gary. “Women and Children First.” Phrases. The Phrase Finder, 1996. Web. 27 July 2009. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/women-and-children-first.html>.

 

Roberts, Carey. “Titanic Chivalry.” IFeminist. IFeminist, 26 Apr. 2006. Web. 27 July 2009. <http://www.ifeminists.net/introduction/editorials/2006/0426roberts.html>.

 

“Titanic Ship.” History of Titanic. Titanic Facts, 2005. Web. 2 Aug. 2009. <http://www.titanic-facts.com/>.