Bustle today posted an excellent roundup of the debate that raged in 1912 over
the disproportionate number of men who died when the Titanic sunk on its first voyage
105 years ago. My new book adds a bit more, included for several reasons: because of the
magnitude of the tragedy on the decade the book covers and its legacy, because of
reflections about it in the memoir of Oswald Garrison Villard, who was also the founding
force behind the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, on which the story is centered, and
because of how the women leaders of the US suffrage movement—specifically Harriot
Stanton Blatch, Inez Millholand, and Anna Howard Shaw—reacted to the horrific toll and
the privilege of the sea that put “women and children first.”
Villard in 1912 was the editor and publisher of the New York Evening Post and the Nation magazine. He recalled the moment like what we used to call a newsman would. The women suffrage leaders reacted as you might expect.
Here is the passage from The Suffragents on pages 89-90:
In Villard’s much later recollection, the greatest disaster of 1912 proved to be not only one of the worst in history, but also a profound reminder of how much the act of journalism meant to him, above and beyond his absorption in the management of the Post and the Nation, and his involvement “in politics, the Negro,”and his other causes, which included suffrage and efforts to establish the New York State Police. There were also the many Wednesdays he had spent writing his well-received book, John Brown: Fifty Years After, published in 1910.
“I suppose most veterans of my time will agree with me that the greatest of peace time ‘stories’ was the sinking of the Titanic,” his 1939 memoir recounts of the events of April 14 and 15, 1912, and the more than 2,200 passengers and crew who perished. The disaster had within it, he said, “every element of stark, overpowering human tragedy—pathos, superb courage, heroic resignation in the face of death. Gross incompetency and criminal mismanagement there were, too, and some cases of cowardice. Still it was, all in all, a triumph for the human spirit. No one who had a hand in getting out the issues which bore such tidings can ever forget those hours or be free from the desire to be a part again of such journalistic emergencies.”
Women reacting publicly to the Titanic news deplored the impact of the then extant “women and children first” rule of the sea. It had meant a wildly disproportionate number of deaths among men—1,680 among the passengers and crew alongside 434 women and 112 children. The survival rate for women and children was 75 percent and 50 percent, respectively, compared with only 19 percent for the men. The anarchist Emma Goldman, an antagonist of the women’s suffrage movement, published an essay in the Denver Post objecting to the privileging of women’s lives over those of men. “I fear very much that the ladies who have so readily accepted the dictations of the men, who stood by when the men were beaten back from the lifeboats,” she wrote, “have demonstrated their utter unfitness and inferiority, not merely to the title of man’s equal, but to her traditionary fame of goodness, love and self-sacrifice.” Suffrage leaders were also quick to decry the practice. Harriot Stanton Blatch described it as an outmoded remnant of “barbarous times”; the young Inez Milholland suggested “children first” would be a better idea, with women helping the men. And to an audience in Boston, Anna Shaw warmly praised the sacrifice of the men who had ‘acted from the loftiest motives,’ but quickly added that she did not believe there should be ‘different standings of loyalty, courage and devotion.’ Women, she said, do not “want a standard that sets them apart.”
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