Class, Gender, and One Hundred Years After the Titanic
3:35 PM, Apr 14, 2012 • By JEAN KAUFMAN
One hundred years ago, on the evening of April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg. A few hours later, on April 15, the great ship went down, taking the lives of 1,514 people.
The Titanic sinking was the very model of tragic disaster, and it has spawned a host of speculation, inquiry, exposition, and entertainment (in particular, film) ever since. For this anniversary, we have the re-release of the blockbuster 1997 movie Titanic (in 3-D, no less), and a host of articles, including one by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New Yorker, in which he discusses the place of the Titanic disaster in legend, and compares it (among other things) to the myths of Iphigenia and Oedipus.
That sounds much worse, and much more portentous, than Mendelsohn’s article really is. Actually, his piece is quite good–except for one interesting error, an error widely shared. That misunderstanding (which is really only a partial error) has to do with the role of class in Titanic survival.
Here’s Mendelsohn on the subject:
I’m in complete agreement with Mendelsohn on that–although he, nevertheless (like most people) falls prey to the very phenomenon he describes. He writes:
This is the well-known narrative. But truth is more complex.
To try to learn what may have actually happened, go to the survival figures, broken down by class and gender. And there we find something curious, which reveals that Mendelsohn has picked his statistics rather carefully. While it is true that the percentage of survivors among first class male passengers (34 percent) was “roughly the same as that of children in third class” (31 percent), Mendelsohn ignores the other statistics that undercut the preferred class narrative.
A more careful study of the charts reveals the surprising fact that third class women passengers had a far better chance of surviving (49 percent) than first class males (34 percent). Yes, first and second class women had a much greater chance of survival (97 percent and 86 percent, respectively) than did third class women (49 percent). But the corresponding figures for men were abysmal, even in first class–and, curiously enough, second class men fared even worse than those in third class (8 percent to 13 percent). What’s more, there were logistical reasons why third class passengers may have had reduced chances of living through the disaster; it was a far more lengthy and difficult process to get to the upper decks from their accommodations on the much lower ones.
It is clear that class was a huge factor in Titanic survival, although it is difficult to know how much of the class differential was deliberate exclusion and how much accidental circumstance. But there is no escaping the conclusion that gender was an even greater factor than class, and that this was deliberate: Many first-class male passengers either elected to die in order that third class female passengers might live, or were forced by the crew to refrain from saving themselves at the expense of those third class women. That’s a different–and more accurate–narrative, although it’s not quite as politically correct. And it’s one that has gotten very little traction over the years.
Jean Kaufman is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.
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