It's a century since the Titanic sank to the cries of 'women and children first'. But do men put women first any longer, and should we?
The Titanic sank 100 years ago this week and the stark fact is that over 1,500 people lost their lives. But scratch beneath the surface and you will find evidence of a lost world of chivalry, gallantry and different ideas of masculinity.
That's because, of the 700 or so passengers who survived the disaster, nearly 75 per cent were women, and fewer than 20 per cent were men. Nearly 87 per cent of female crew members also survived, and more women from third class survived than men from first class. In 1912, when an officer shouted "women and children first" most men hung back and accepted their fate.
Is that still true today? New evidence suggests not. But should men put women first anymore, or do demands for equality consign such sentiment to a bygone age?
Do we put women first?
At the most crucial time of all when it could mean the difference between life and death men are no longer the gallant and noble creatures of old in their dealings with women, it seems.
According to a new study of 18 major maritime disasters, 17.8 per cent of women survived compared to 34.5 per cent of men. In other words, you have twice as much chance of surviving a shipwreck as a man as you would if you were a woman.
"The evacuation of the Titanic serves as the prime example of chivalry at sea. Men stood back, while women and children were given priority to board the lifeboats," said the researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden.
But today, they continued, in most maritime emergencies, "it appears as if it is every man for himself."
That certainly seems to be true in the case of the recent Costa Concordia disaster. As Edwin Gurd, a retired police chief, told the press. "We were keen for women and children to go first, and men if they had babies or families. A lot of men regardless of that were trying to save themselves."
Of course, as far as statistics are concerned, it may be that men are often stronger swimmers than women or have the strength to grasp driftwood for hours before being rescued. But most evidence points to the fact that, most of the time, men don't leave the lifeboats to the ladies.
So if the kind of chivalry displayed on the Titanic is dead, should we mourn its passing?
The Titanic syndrome
Many men, and plenty of women, would say that 'women first' is an outdated philosophy, and that this unofficial law of the sea (and elsewhere) should be changed to "women and men with children first".
Children should be put first, for obvious reasons, and their carers (of either gender) along with them. But one question that a growing number of men's rights activists ask is why, all else being equal, adult women should get preferential treatment to adult men.
"Examples of this happening include the eligibility for selective service and how otherwise able-bodied and capable women were legally exempt from it (and are to this day) and social expectations around self-sacrifice and self-effacement," says men's rights campaigner Matt Campbell. "In other words socially mandated male disposability, sometimes termed 'The Titanic Syndrome'."
'Socially mandated male disposability' is a fancy way of saying that men are expected to sacrifice themselves for women and not the other way round, whether that's on the decks of a sinking ship or the battlefields of a bloody war.
It's hard to argue that this is fair. When children, disability or age don't come into it, perhaps the only just way to fill a lifeboat is first come, first served.
But if it's unjust to let adult women without children jump the queue, it's just as unjust for adult men to use their strength to barge to the front, as reports suggest some on the Costa Concordia were all too willing to do.
What about holding doors?
If 'women or men with children first, and everyone else form an orderly queue' seems the best way to abandon ship in 2012, does it stand to reason that chivalry is an outmoded notion in other areas of life?
Last November, Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, said chivalry was dead and lamented its loss. "Men standing when women arrive at the dinner table," she explained, "opening doors for you... it's lovely when you see a man doing that. But young men wouldn't think about that because it's not the culture anymore."
Perhaps women like Dockery should be careful what they wish for. It's worth remembering that the sort of chivalry that had men laying their coats over puddles so women didn't get wet feet originates from a time when women didn't have the vote or an independent income and were often forced to marry for money.
In other words, it suggests women are the weaker, more feeble sex, and few women want to be seen like that any more.
"A man should hold a door for me if he's just gone through and I'm right behind him," says Nichola, 35, from Wellington. "But if it's the other way round I'll hold the door for him."
Jen, 28, from Auckland, agrees. "Chivalry is dead, and good riddance. Now if a man offers his seat to a pregnant woman that's not chivalry, that's just being nice. And if an old man walked onto a crowded bus I'd do the same."
So there seems no earthly reason why men should be chivalrous anymore, if being chivalrous means bestowing trivial kindnesses on women alone. Being a decent human being is the key, rather than performing acts of chivalry that were designed to make women happy with their sweet, feeble and ever so second-class status.
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