Was it women and children first?

women and children

Reading Time: 6 minutes

by Joni

As panic rose about the fate of the damaged Titanic, crew started to load the lifeboats. Was it ‘Women and children first?’ No, it seems not, as only 53% of the survivors were women. 157 women and 56 children perished that night. What happened to the ‘women and children first’ policy?

The Unthinkable

The stricken liner that had been deemed unsinkable was already sinking and had a distinct lean to the starboard and bow. The collision with an iceberg caused a 300-foot gash to its starboard side, leading to five out of five front watertight compartments filling one after the other as seawater poured in.

In less than two hours, the sinking bow caused the massive ship’s stern to rise out of the water, breaking the ship in two. As this occurred, the four giant funnels crashed, and the bow and stern sank separately to the icy depths of the North Atlantic. This final act abandoned 1517 passengers to the minus 2-degree sea, over two hundred of them women and children. A few would manage to survive these conditions by clawing onboard a lifeboat, if allowed by those already onboard. Yet 332 men lived to tell the tale of their survival, many with shame.

The brand new $7.5 million Titanic, pride of the White Star Line, the largest man-made object ever afloat, would lie on the ocean floor for 74 years with her cargo of passengers, undiscovered until 1986. Titanic never completed her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.

What happened? Titanic had everything, didn’t it?

The Titanic had everything but enough lifeboats and a functional pair of binoculars on the lookout bridge. For the 2223 people onboard, the Titanic had only enough lifeboats for 1178 people and only if the 20 boats were filled to capacity of 65. Four of the boats, the collapsible ones, took less. So, you would think that the loading of these boats would be supervised with nautical command to ensure women and children boarded first. But there seemed no one in command.

Even though Captain Smith was well aware of the dilemma he and his ship were in, he opted out of delivering orders. Survivors said he wandered around like a lost soul, rather than taking command. It was not the glorious last voyage before retirement that he had envisioned. His dream was disintegrating before his eyes.

Assortment of Crew

Instead, an assortment of crew took command. Lifeboats 1 to 8 were located on the first-class decks at the bow. They were accessible only by those first-class passengers who were willing to board. Many were not. Women especially feared boarding. There had been no drill beforehand to allay passenger fears.

The Titanic was unsinkable after all, why bother the passengers? The number of lifeboats had been reduced in the first place, because the Titanic was viewed as unsinkable. They would clutter the decks and look unsightly. They were not considered essential at the time of fitting a luxury ship.

What about women and children first?

This was the creed dictated by the chivalrous Edwardian society. Women had few rights and privileges. They could not vote, own a business or home, or even a passport. Women were just considered home bodies who occupied a small domestic sphere in life. At best, they were decorative, submissive and pleasant company for men and provided a man with a family life. At best, men opened doors for them and surrendered their seats in vehicles and boats to them, the fairer delicate sex. Women and children first.

Men, in 1912, were the providers, the protectors, the decision makers. Given this role description, one would expect that all the lifeboats be filled with women and children. This should have been easy as there were only 555 women on board and 1692 adolescent boys and men. This included the huge number of crew; 899 with just 23 female crew. The Titanic carried mostly men and boys.

Depending on which crew supervised the loading, adolescent boys as young as 13 could be rejected and classed as men. Many such lads went down with their fathers to the bottom of the Atlantic. On the first class deck, where the first boats were loaded, the ‘women and children rule’ was not enforced well. Neither was the ‘fill the boats’ rule.

Women were reluctant to board the lifeboats and descend the huge drop to the sea below. Even getting into the boat was tricky when you were wearing a nightgown or ball gown and it was after midnight and freezing on deck. Many women preferred to wait in the warmth and comfort of their nearby cabins and stay with their husbands and sons.

Women who should have been first missed the boat

So, not understanding the urgency of the situation, these women literally missed the boat. The first 8 boats lowered with only about 20 or less people onboard. Quite a high proportion of men and crew hopped in as women were not visible on deck. These starboard boats launched from first class boat deck were mostly occupied by men.

One, to his later shame, was Bruce Ismay, the owner of White Star Line. He had urged the full speed ahead command into the ice fields, because he wanted the ship to impress people by getting to New York a day early. Most passengers would have just preferred to arrive there as promised.

In second class, the lifeboats, 9 to 16, were aft of the bow, and accessible if passengers ascended from their cabins in D, E, F and G decks. By the time loading began there, more passengers were alert to the situation, so more women boarded. But these boats for the second class were also filled with first class women who now decided to board.

145 of the 156 first class women thus managed to save themselves and 104 of the 128 second class women. So only 35 of first-and second-class women died that night. Some, admittedly, by their own choice, elected to stay with their family onboard. Only one first class child died. Little 3-year-old Lorraine Allison died with her parents as they stayed behind to search for baby Trevor and the maid. Unbeknown to the family, the maid had boarded an earlier boat with the baby and was saved.

Why didn’t the boats save all the women?

So, these statistics don’t explain the damning fact that of those saved, only 53% were women or children and 157 women died alongside half the children onboard. What went wrong? The answer lies in the prejudice of the class system at the time. The site, Titanic Demographics, unpacks the stats on the situation. First, there were no lifeboats provided for third class or steerage passengers. None at all. These people, the most numerous of any class, 710 of them, mostly men, had to fend for themselves.

As they occupied F and G deck cabins, third class had no easy access to lifeboats, or even news of what was happening. No staff urged them to go up to the decks, or informed them of the impending chaos. Instead, crew members who were still in the corridors, told them to stay put.

Even if the third-class people wanted to go up to see what was happening, they couldn’t, as locked gates prevented them from accessing first or second-class spaces where the lifeboats were.

Steerage passengers considered vermin

This was a health precaution. Steerage passengers were considered vermin by the upper classes. As these paying steerage passengers boarded, they and they only, were checked for lice and other possible contagion. Hence the separation onboard and disregard for their well-being.

Only 25% of the women and children of this class managed to survive and only by boarding the last of the boats or diving into the sea. As the Titanic slowly sank, the lower cabins filled with water drowning their occupants. Even trying to escape was difficult, due to the list. It was almost impossible to walk the corridors as, they were steep and flooded. 3rd class woman, Rhoda Abbott, free of her cabin, jumped at the last moment into the sea with her two young sons. She made it to a lifeboat, but her sons did not. Similar tragedies occurred onboard the fated Andrea Dorea in the 1950s.

Most of the third-class men died too, 417 of the 486. It is a wonder any of the third-class passengers made it to safety. Perhaps, if they made it up on deck or out to the sea, they were better swimmers, fitter, and younger than their upper-class contemporaries. This class was multinational, single men or families off to start a better life in America. Filled with hope, they could never have foreseen this outcome on a brand-new ship deemed unsinkable. Many were unable to dodge this nastiest of all life’s bullets.

Policy, not women first, but class first

Admittedly, being a man onboard Titanic did skew the chance of survival due to the ‘women and children first’ policy, but this policy only worked in the favour of first-and second-class women. 70% of first class and 90 % of second-class men died. Of the crew, mostly men, 78% men perished. Those that survived were most likely rowers of the lifeboats or had easy access to boats on deck. They hopped in when no women were available nearby to board.

Women as Survivors

Of the 23 women crew, only 3 died. Most had boarded lifeboats to show other women it could be done or had saved themselves by swimming to a collapsible boat in the sea. Young Violet Jessop survived three crashes on White Star liners. First the collision of the Olympic sister ship, then the Titanic, then on board the Britannic when it hit a mine in WWI.

As illustrated in this article, the ‘Women and children first’ policy only operated to an extent in the upper classes of society. Third class women passengers did not have the same treatment. Really, survival was not dictated by gender but by class.

The Titanic continues to fascinate me. Its story has so much to unpack. There is the history angle, the nautical angle, the nostalgia angle and the day dreamy ‘what if?’ angle. There is even the ‘women’s angle’. Read more about this angle in Women of the Titanic and Surviving the Titanic in my other posts.

Photo by Bravadi Malangjoedo on Unsplash

Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; https://whisperingencouragement.com/ and has her own website; https://joniscottauthor.com.


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