Women of the Titanic

photo of titanic at night

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This post is probably more interesting historically than as an inspirational tribute to a particular woman. Excuse the digression but this topic is one of my history obsessions as it showcases so much of humanity. So, let’s get on with women and the Titanic.

Even after its sinking on an icy cold April night long ago in 1912, the Titanic has proved to be an unsinkable story of human tragedy.

Indeed, The RMS Titanic lives on as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when ego and greed overpower responsibility and safety concerns. This tragic tale is endlessly fascinating, despite the ship’s loss to the icy depths of the Atlantic over a century ago.

Titanic in Literature

The ill-fated Titanic is the subject of many books such as the definitive A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (1956) and Titanic, An Illustrated History by Don Lynch (1992). The ship features in Stephen Weir’s book, History’s Worst Decisions and is even the inspiration for a children’s book called Polar, the Titanic Bear, about the actual teddy bear of a little boy who survived the sinking. Because of my obsession with this tragedy, I included it in my own historical fiction novel, Whispers through Time as it is set around 1912.

Speaking of which, there is one last book I just have to mention that is also a fascinating read. Shadow of the Titanic follows the lives of the survivors of that terrible night. Interestingly, most of them had sad lives and many died young and even quite soon after the event.

The little boy who owned the teddy bear died in a family car crash within a year and is just one example of the long shadow that the Titanic cast over people’s lives. Some folks never recovered from family losses, while others bore survivor’s guilt that prevented their happiness.

The Titanic tragedy keeps giving

Yes, the Titanic story is one that keeps on giving. There is so much to fascinate, so many lessons about human nature to appreciate.

As a long-time enthusiast of all things Victorian, the story interested me long before the blockbuster 1997 Titanic film produced by James Cameron. I had already watched the earlier film starring Barbara Stanwyck and seen and read films and books where the Titanic had sailed in, creating a setting for many tragic storylines. I confess to Titanic jigsaws and scale models as well. I’m a Titanic tragic!

But all the tragedy could have been averted if someone like Bruce Ismay, Captain Smith or the ship builder, Thomas Andrew had read another book by a little-known author named Morgan Robertson. In 1898, he wrote a novel about a transatlantic liner loaded with the rich and famous that hit an iceberg near Newfoundland at similar co-ordinates to the 1912 liner. The ship, eerily called the Titan had very similar specifications to the actual Titanic.

If only someone had read this book, aptly titled Futility.

What caused the Titanic tragedy?

It is telling of human nature that we are drawn to details of tragedies. Perhaps it is because there is so much to take away and reflect on. The factors that caused the real-life Titanic tragedy are themselves endlessly fascinating. In this instance, there were a myriad of fateful errors both human and natural.

Titanic was steaming ahead in a fateful race with Time itself. Captain Edward Smith confidently ordered her throttled into full steam so she could arrive in New York ahead of schedule. He, along with Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line, wanted to showcase her capabilities as the biggest ship ever to sail the seas. It was Smith’s last commission at sea, so this would be a fitting end to his career. A timely six day crossing of the Atlantic was important for both men. But thousands of others would have preferred to just arrive.

The Titanic had everything but lifeboats

Neither man seemed concerned by reported ice warnings in the ocean ahead, nor overly mindful of their responsibility to the cargo of 2240 passengers, despite the paucity of lifeboats. The Titanic had everything anyone could want on board a ship, except lifeboats.

Even at two-thirds capacity of its possible number of passengers, there were only enough lifeboats for 1178 people, leaving 1023 others stranded. That is only if the lifeboats were fully loaded, which was definitely not the case. Many that could take 65 people, left with less than twenty aboard. Some of these fortunate passengers were extremely wealthy and influential women along with children and even first-class men. Most second and third-class passengers went down with the ship.

So Many Fateful Factors

If it were not for the speed, the inattention to ice, the lowered bulkheads, the limited lifeboats, the missing binoculars on the watch deck, the poor-quality steel, the pop rivets, the last-minute attempt to swerve around the iceberg…. So many ‘ifs, so many factors that coalesced to cause tragedy.

Then, apart from the ship’s construction, the speed and human factors, there was the bad luck that the only nearby ship, the Californian, turned off its telegram service and retired all staff to bed, even after sighting a flare rocket. ‘We thought it was a just a party,’ the captain claimed in defense. Words that went down in history like those of Captain Smith. ‘I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.’

Titanic and its Women Passengers.

One of the few advantages of being a woman in the Victorian age was chivalry. For those who have no experience of it, chivalry is defined as the social and moral code by which men supposedly, selflessly, respect women. It is definitely a dying art!

In 1912, chivalry dictated that women and children had priority over men, with regards to lifeboats. The problem, of course, was that there were not enough lifeboats, even for the women and children.

Sadly, as explained above, most lifeboats left the ship with few onboard and most of these were first-class women. Because, though chivalry was active, class was still an issue. Third-class women and children had a slim chance of making it on deck, to even try for a lifeboat. Their access was restricted to avoid mass panic, so the captain maintained, but really it was all about what class you were. This is well portrayed in James Cameron’s blockbuster, Titanic (1998)

Class onboard Titanic Mattered

The first-class women included the likes of eighteen-year-old Lady Madeleine Astor, the young and pregnant wife of John Jacob Astor, the richest man onboard the ship and Lady Duff Gordon. Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon bribed his way onto a boat and like Bruce Ismay suffered lifelong disgrace, due to his cowardice and lack of chivalry.

Rumors abounded that these well-off individuals refused to row back to save others, when the ship finally descended to the icy depths of the Atlantic. The ‘unsinkable Molly Brown’ a nouveau riche society woman tried to influence her fellow passengers in lifeboat 6 to return to help those in the sea.

Most third-class women perished along with their husbands and children, and this was the fate of many second-class women as well. They did not join the ranks of first-class widows who arrived in New York in a state of shock and disbelief. At least they had financial security to continue alone.

Unhappy Survivors

But even these apparently fortunate women who survived, did not live on to have happy lives. The shadow of the Titanic cast a long shadow. The echoes of that night reverberated forever. Many reported that over seventy years later, that they still suffered nightmares and heard the screams from those in the water.

It was not just the screams, but the silence that followed, as a thousand souls died. Some women went insane, committed suicide or just suffered, not only as widows but as remarried women. Many had survivor-guilt and questioned the meaning of life.

Child survivors had similar memories and distress throughout their life. Maybe it was better to drown with your husband and children, than live on as a survivor? Being a third-class widow would have been a difficult role in life in 1912.

PS If I have a good response from this article, I may write another about these women survivors based on the stories from the book The Shadow of the Titanic.

Follow my history blogs on https://joniscottauthor.com

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

    Joni Scott writes from personal experience of her roller coaster ride through life. Joni co-hosts a women’s blog. Joni also writes short stories and has three published novels. Visit Joni on her website.
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