Women and Children First? Titanic and the Suffragettes

by JoHarrington

Votes for Women or boats for women? In 1912, the press pushed to make it either/or and the Suffragettes were left floundering.

The sinking of the Titanic marked a turning point in the fight for female suffrage. What would happen next would change the whole history of the movement.

It wasn't that the women themselves looked to capitalize upon the disaster. The aftermath, in all its repercussions, was foisted upon them by the press.

In the intense public scrutiny that ensued, one woman would reach the conclusion that Votes for Women could only happen with a martyr for the cause.

Boats or Votes? You Decide!

Because the journalists say that you can't have it all and public opinion is with them.

Two ideologies clashed on April 15th 1912, as the RMS Titanic was sinking into the ocean.

On both sides of the Atlantic - and indeed on the stricken liner itself - the campaign was hotting up for votes for women. But when it came to shipwreck, the old chivalrous norm of 'women and children first' came into play.

Should women expect to have their say in the polls, when they were still prepared to let men die for them in disasters? The press didn't think so and their questioning sought to make a mockery of the whole Suffragist and Suffragette Movements.

Unfortunately, the ladies themselves didn't help their cause with the soundbites they gave to make headlines.

Titanic, Suffrage and 1912 in Context

Today we take for granted that women have the vote. They can also sit in government and become a nation's leader, if the electorate deems it so. There is still fine tuning to be done, but in theory gender is no longer a barrier to full social inclusion and responsibility.

This was not so in 1912. In fact, it was due to the efforts of the campaigners then that a series of events were set in motion, which led to universal suffrage now.

Allowing women to vote in elections was not only a radical idea, but a downright divisive one. It was akin to, say, the abortion or gay marriage debates occurring in the USA in 2012.

It wasn't a simple matter of 'yes' or 'no'. The very notion of it turned some people's stomachs. It seemed ungodly and against the natural order of things! Don't assume either that this was the reaction solely of men. The majority of women were also appalled at the idea that they should be anything but the 'weaker sex'.

For those in support, there were three categories:

The Suffragists sought to enact change through the men in power. They stated their cases in quiet interviews, with calm reasoning and diplomatic persuasion. They didn't get very far.

The Suffragettes would probably be called anarchists or terrorists today, as those are the media buzz-words to sideline any loud protest group. They used shock tactics, like chaining themselves to railings, breaking into the House of Commons or going on hunger strike. They included Emily Wilding Davison, who was killed in the course of protest.

Then there were people who agreed with the idea of women being able to vote, but who were repulsed by the aforementioned groups actually campaigning for it. These armchair intellectuals reasoned that the cause was right, but the reality was unseemly.

This was a time of rigid social order and very set rules on how one should behave in public. Many would rather die than be responsible for a breach of etiquette.

As the Titanic started to sink, the majority of those on board got their chance to actually do this. 1513 people perished in the disaster. Of that number, 89% were men.

Down with the Old Canoe

A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster

The Year was 1912

Steven Biel's Down with the Old Canoe has a chapter on how people reacted to the disaster's figures in 1912.

While some called chivalry, others saw an infantilization of women.The ideologies of gender equality versus the expectations of society completely collided.

Buy this book to place both Titanic and the Female Suffrage Movement in context.

Titanic Statistics of Chivalry

Surviving the sinking of the Titanic very much depended upon your gender.
Survivor and Casualty Statistics from Titanic
On Board Died Survived
Women 402 18% 106 109 26% 26% 296 316 74% 74%
Female Crew 23 1% 3 13% 20 87%
Men 805 36% 659 1352 82% 80% 146 338 18% 20%
Male Crew 885 40% 693 78% 192 22%
Children 109 5% - 52 - 48% - 57 - 52%
Total 2224  - - 1513 - 68% - 711 - 32%

 Figures from British Parliamentary Report 1912, collated with the kind assistance of Liam Dodd.

It may come as a surprise to learn that more men were in Titanic's life-boats than women. Looking at survival figures alone, that would seem to indicate that gender equality was alive and well, even as the Suffragettes campaigned for it.

But that does not take into account the percentages of overall passengers and crew. Women only made up 19% of those on board, but they accounted for 74% of all survivors.

(Incidentally, the almost 50-50 survival odds for children was based along class lines, not gender. All but one child in first and second class made it safely away. The other 56 children, who went down with Titanic, came from third class. They were overwhelmingly the off-spring of poor, Irish passengers, traveling to make a new life for themselves in New York City.)

Eye-witness accounts made it blatantly clear that chivalry had played a large part in the gender discrepancy. As soon as it became apparent that there weren't enough life-boats to go around, most male passengers simply stepped back so that the women and children could be saved.

There was an expectation that they would do so, underscored by the fact that the ship's crew were calling for 'women and children first'. This was entirely in-keeping with societal norms of the time and no-one questioned it at all.

Nevertheless, as the stories emerged back home, the men of the Titanic were lauded as heroes. Newspaper headlines blazed with commendations for their chivalry. Everyone approved and pride in their selfless sacrifice was widespread.

Memorial to the Men who Perished on the Titanic

This approval of chivalry was apparent too in the backlash against those men who did survive Titanic. Every single one of them received condemnation back home. Women and children had died out there, so what right did any gentleman have to be taking their places in lifeboats?

The pressure was so great that no less than fifteen male survivors committed suicide in the immediate aftermath, shamed into doing so by their perceived lack of chivalry.

The pervading ethos was also a stick with which to beat the female suffrage movement; and the press did not stint to use it. Prominent spokeswomen were sought out solely to provoke them into speaking out against those heroic, chivalrous men. Such a thing, in such a climate, would severely damage the cause.

Unfortunately, those Suffragettes fell for it.

Suffragettes Deny Chivalry on Titanic

Headline in the New York Times on April 21st 1912
New York Times April 21st 1912
New York Times April 21st 1912

Women and Children First! Women and Children First!

To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too.

Rudyard Kipling 'Soldier an' Sailor Too!'

The Birkenhead Drill is 'women and children first'. It derives from the sinking of the RMS Birkenhead in 1852, when all of the soldiers on board literally stood to attention and allowed themselves to drown, so that the women and children could be saved in the only serviceable lifeboat.

It really was a maritime tradition...

"Women and children first" is a saying that asserts that the lives of women and children are to be saved first if the lives of a group of people are at stake. The saying is most famously associated with the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912.

... and it still causes controversy.

The Birkenhead Drill

Learn about the Birkhead through this stirring collection of survivor accounts.

View on Amazon

The Suffragette Response to the Titanic Disaster

What the Votes for Women campaigners should have said; and what they actually said.

The obvious response to those hostile members of the press would have been to take ownership of the debate.

The Suffragists and Suffragettes alike were campaigning for votes for women. They weren't necessarily talking about full gender equality in all things. Their argument was that, if women were able to work and to contribute taxes, then shouldn't they have some say in how that tax money is spent?

Any American could probably sum that up in one easy phrase - no taxation without representation.

Women on both sides of the Atlantic in 1912 had politicians representing them; but none who had to listen to them. They could be told what to do, but not influence policy. They did not have the franchise, which is what the debate should have been about.

So why was it suddenly about whether women had priority over men, in the emergency situation of a sinking ship? That was like bringing oranges into a debate about apples. It's all the same broad spectrum, but not entirely relevant to the discussion at hand.

It may be that those protesters approached for soundbites really did buck the prevailing mood to gain (bad) publicity for their cause. Or maybe they really did think like this.

Despite the statistical evidence to the contrary, prominent British Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst allegedly denied that chivalry had taken place. She was reported in the New York Times as saying that it was 'universal law' that women and children should be saved first. The passengers were merely obeying the age old mariner rules.

An unnamed woman apparently whined that female survivors were in the 'equally hard situation of having to see the ship go down'. Assuming that wasn't hearsay, or made up on the spot by someone determined to make the Suffragettes look bad, then it was designed to provoke incredulity.

How could sacrificing yourself possibly as as bad as watching someone else do it for you? The answer, of course, is Survivor's Guilt and the fact that those dying were their own husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. Take 'equally' out and the statement suddenly doesn't seem half as shocking.

Survivors of Titanic Family Historic Print

Titanic Turned Women's Suffrage into a Deadly Campaign

The other Suffragette soundbites don't seem very terrible now, but would have been too radical, too militant, for an Edwardian readership. They could also have had terrible repercussions.

Mrs Mansel stated that 'the new women "would rather be without exceptional treatment".'  This took the glory out of chivalry by making it seem unwanted. It sniffed disdain right back at the courage and heroism of the drowned Titanic men. That is how it would have been interpreted at the time.

The Suffragist Mrs Cecil Chapman echoed the sentiment, saying, "I would a thousand times rather go down with the ship under similar circumstances."  By doing so, she aligned herself with the men who had opted to do just that.

She and Mansel were talking about gender equality now, in all things, not just the vote. That would have seemed even more dangerous to a society so rigidly accepting of defined roles for men and women; with the latter being the subservient 'weaker sex'.

But by engaging in such terms, in such conditions, then both the press and the Suffragettes (if they were quoted precisely) had moved the debate into a very dangerous arena.

By channeling the Votes for Women issue through the lens of Titanic, the emphasis shifted. The implication was now that women only deserved suffrage, if they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for gender equality.

Just two months on, and in the name of the Women's Social and Political Union, Emily Wilding Davison attempted martyrdom for the first time. A year later, she succeeded.


Funeral of Emily Wilding Davison

On June 8th 2013, it was the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison. She made the decision to become a martyr for Women's Right to Vote.
One hundred years after the birth of Emily Wilding Davison, I was born in the same country. Comparing our lives highlights the changes that were wrought.

Did Reporters Misquote the Suffragettes?

It could be that the press simply didn't report the more reasoned responses. After all, the media in every age has misquoted or otherwise misrepresented those whom it's taken against.

There is definitely evidence of such things taking place in 1912 too. On April 20th, the New York Times wrote, 'the general opinion here, based on the details so far at hand, (is) that no woman would seem to have been left aboard the sinking ship except by her own deliberate resolve to share the fate of those she loved.'

Given that the RMS Carpathia docked two days previously, in the very same city, with all of the Titanic survivors on board, then this observation is very remiss. Especially since the Cunard ship had already sent wireless dispatches ahead and over 40,000 people had amassed on the docks to meet it.

New York Crowd Awaiting the Survivors of the Titanic Disaster

Granted, the reporters had some leeway insofar as the official list of casualties didn't appear until April 23rd, but there were plenty of eye-witnesses testimonies to be getting on with. Unless they weren't counting the steerage women.

Even more bizarre was the disdainful tone given to Suffragette Mrs Drummond's ideal scenario that 'each boatload of persons taken off a sinking ship would consist of half men and half women'. The press seemed to think this proposition outrageous!

But that is precisely what happened on Titanic.  316 women and 338 men survived. That was nearly half and half, along gender lines. 

As the arrival of the RMS Carpathia had resulted in as much of a press frenzy as a public one, then it should be expected that journalists had noticed the numbers involved. Percentage-wise, there was an obvious discrepancy; but as regarded the people right in front of their eyes, then they would certainly have constituted 'half men and half women'.

We cannot know this far down the line what the Votes for Women campaigners actually did or did not say, except through the seemingly distorted and antagonistic reporting of the press. Which is a great, great pity.

Who Were the Suffragettes on Board Titanic?

Mrs Edith Martha Bowerman Chibnall and her daughter Elsie Bowerman were both members of the Women's Social and Political Union (i.e. the Suffragettes).

They had both been involved in two protests during 1910, which took place in Parliament Square, London. On each occasion, the police and Suffragettes had violently clashed and many arrests had been made. Edith was injured during the second, but that was the least of her problems. Her husband was so incensed by her involvement that he left her.

The mother and daughter were both on Titanic and they were rescued in Lifeboat 6. Elsie went on to become the first female barrister at the Old Bailey.

Stands there a school: Memories of Dame Frances Dove by Elsie Bowerman

Dame Dove was the founder of the Wycombe Abbey School.

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The It Girls: Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the Couturiere Lucile, and Elinor Glyn, Romantic Novelist

View on Amazon

A Woman of Temperament

Single mother. Fashion pioneer. Titanic survivor. In her own words, the story of a remarkable woman who built an international fashion empire, survived the sinking of the Titani...

View on Amazon

As a businesswoman, and one of the best known fashion designers of her day, Lady Duff-Gordon epitomized the image of a strong, independent woman. She was also close friends with many prominent Suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst.

However, Lady Duff-Gordon went to great lengths to distance herself from the movement. It wasn't the cause which she found distasteful, but the militancy.

Another passenger was Helen Churchill Candee, an American journalist, author, feminist and Suffragette. She slipped and fell while getting into Lifeboat 6, breaking her ankle in the process. The fracture was so severe that she spent the next year walking with a cane.

That did not stop her joining the Votes for Women march, down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, in March 1913. (As an aside, in her memories about Titanic, she discussed walking on the bow during a sunset. It's believed that this was the inspiration for the famous Jack and Rose scene ("I'm flying Jack! I'm flying!") in the 1997 film Titanic.)

Books by Helen Churchill Candee

The first presents her Feminist credentials (it was written in 1901); the second includes her eye-witness account of the sinking of Titanic; and research for the third was the whole reason she was on the ship in the first place.

The most famous Votes for Women campaigner on board Titanic was Margaret 'Molly' Brown.

She hadn't exactly stepped into a lifeboat voluntarily, but had been helping other people into them instead. Eventually a crewman picked her up bodily and threw her into Lifeboat 6. Once out at sea, she took over the tiller and rallied the people alongside her.

Despite the protestations of Quartermaster Hitchens - the only Titanic crewman in the lifeboat - Molly Brown not only helped with the rowing, but persuaded other women to do the same. It kept them warm, she said, even if it was strictly against social etiquette. (Not that they would have needed much persuading. At least three of them were Suffragettes.)

There's no evidence that this had anything to do with gender equality. If it had, then it's certain that we would have known about it by now. She was a very prominent speaker, who later ran for the Senate, and linking Titanic with her politics happened a lot.

She was the person chosen to represent survivors, in presenting Captain Rostron of the Carpathia with a Love Cup, to thank him for his rescue.

Molly Brown did comment upon the 'Women and Children First' tradition. She probably addressed it better than any of her fellow campaigners.

She began with recognizing the real gallantry shown by the men who died on Titanic. She did not try to pretend that it hadn't been chivalry.  But then she went further.  She said that the Birkenhead Drill was 'tragically immoral' and that men shouldn't be expected to die like that. It should, she maintained, never have been required by law or custom.

In short, Molly Brown framed the issue not as one that concerned Women's Rights, but Men's Rights instead. 

There was no answer to that. For reporters to run with it, they would have to turn the chivalrous male heroes into victims and that would not have been popular.

Books about the 'Unsinkable' Molly Brown

Learn more about Titanic's most prominent Suffragist, Margaret Brown the first woman to run for US Congress.

Suffragettes on Board Titanic Stepped into the Lifeboats

"I would a thousand times rather go down with the ship under similar circumstances."

So there actually were Suffragists and Suffragettes on board Titanic. They all climbed into the life-boats when invited to do so (though one required a bit of coercion).

This can appear downright hypocritical, when seen from the other side of the press provocation and the death of Emily Wilding Davison. But that is retrospectively applying a quandary, which simply did not exist on the deck of Titanic. 

It was a moral dilemma, which was manipulated into being as a result of the disaster occurring in that precise political climate.

This isn't to say that the Titanic ladies didn't have other considerations in that situation. There can be no universal thought process and no doubt the entire spectrum of the human condition ran throughout. But not one of them would have equated 'boats for women' with 'votes for women', because gender equality was not yet the same thing as universal suffrage.

Five days later, it would be. The press forced the link and people like Mrs Mansel and Mrs Drummond accepted it. Then Emily Wilding Davison sealed the deal.

Seen in that light, there could have been an unforeseen consequence of the Titanic disaster. It might have kick-started the whole Women's Rights Movement into a broader scope a lot sooner than it would have otherwise occurred.

Should it have been Women and Children First in 1912?

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Should it be Women and Children First in 2012?

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On April 15th 1912, RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The story has fascinated generations ever since. But why?
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Buy suffragette memorabilia on eBay

Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
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Guest on 03/12/2014

Good one, Jo. No JT, don't bother to respond to that one. Modern day Suffragettes who still fight for the rights of women have you beat now. Do something radical. Unusual for a man, admit defeat and Just Troll off. Please-and-thank-you? With the aid of a size 6 Doc Martens boot if I have to? (No, on second thoughts, you might enjoy that...) These women stood up for my right to be treated like a human being, not a piece of meat. So I will honor their memories by recalling their efforts when I stand up to speak back to the likes of you.

john thames on 03/10/2014



“What is marriage?”


“Marriage is a system where you work to support me so that I can stay home and raise the kids.”

“When I get tired of you, I divorce you; I take your house, your car and all your money. I walk away with your kids and force you to pay me child support and alimony. When I get done fleecing you, I have everything you own. You have nothing left but the bra holding up your tits.”


“What’s in that for me?”


“Financial rape, my dear.”

john thames on 03/10/2014
JoHarrington on 03/10/2014

John - This was 1912. Men had automatic custody rights over the children.

I know that you're trying to illustrate a messed up American custody system today by turning things on their heads. But it only actually works if the situation in 1912 mirrored that of today.

john thames on 03/10/2014



“Since society discriminates in favor of men by putting them on the life boats first; since it gives fathers automatic custody and forces their mothers to pay child support and alimony and since women have to fight for their country and men don’t, women should have all the jobs to equalize this discrimination in favor of men.”

JoHarrington on 03/09/2014

Molly Brown was really good at the pragmatic responses. She spoke as they all should have at the time.

It was a thorny issue to be sure.

Mira on 03/09/2014

Nice page, Jo! I loved Molly Brown's take on the issue of women and children first.

frankbeswick on 03/09/2014

If you are going to use alleged suffragette hypocrisy on the Titanic against women, you must remember the gospel statement you must take the log from your own eye before you take the splinter from other people's eyes.[Matthew 7, verse 4] The log in the male eye is that over the centuries men have claimed authority over women and seriously misused it to oppress the female sex. The male scorecard contains a long list of negatives and discredits, such as the vast number of rapes, women abandoned with babies and wife beatings, let alone economic oppression that saw women excluded from the professions and paid them lower rates than men for the same job.Men have used their greater muscle to oppress women. Yes, there are some feminists who are hypocritical and at times unfair to men, but there is also a vast number of women misused by men and often deeply hurt by the way in which they have been treated.

frankbeswick on 03/08/2014

John, if we want to select cases, why do you not select Edith Cavell, who ran an escape line for allied troops. Think of the heroic nurses who have cared for injured men on battlefields. Yes, women are not the most effective warriors [on the whole] but they can be fully competent and have often made great sacrifices for their cause. Face it, fighting is a skill, and even if we have it, we know that it is a skill that will one day let us down and we will be beaten by a tougher, or younger man. True fighting men know this, but caring is a skill that will never let you down. I remember how my mother nursed me for months when I was dangerously ill as a child. She was too weak to fight anyone, but her care for a sick child was magnificent. Respect and love women for their wonderful skills.

JoHarrington on 03/08/2014

I am going to approve this one, John, as it is actually on topic.

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