Of Women, Journalists, Suffragists, and the Titanic

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.”


                                                  Inez Milholland

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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National History Day contestants, please read this before you contact me.

The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History.  See Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.

2019 Calendar:
January 29:
Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles.  March 13: The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public LibraryMarch 25:Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City. August 7: “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court,.” AEJMC, Toronto.