Chivalry Isn't Dead

Culture Watch
tags: David Patten, shipwrecks, chivalry, Titanic, gender, masculinity


David Patten is an award-winning history teacher, college lecturer, and the author of eighteen articles published in various magazines, including History Today, Military History, Man at Arms, Arms Collecting, Medal News, and, most recently, the Journal of the Orders and Medals Society of America.

It’s official; newspapers, TV, radio, and online news reports all announced it; male chivalry is nothing but a myth. Two Swedish economists, Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson, exposed the reality of male selfishness in their study, “Every Man for Himself, Gender, Norms, and Survival in Maritime Disasters”, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors claimed to have studied three centuries of shipwrecks, culling statistical data and quantitative research in the process. Their conclusions: men, utilizing their generally superior strength, selfishly disregard the plight of the women and children in order to save themselves. They point to the statistical survival rates of women and children in the shipwrecks included in their work. The results are very discouraging for women and children and completely destroy the concept of the chivalrous male. Rather than “women and children first,” the prevailing sentiment in such disasters is truly, “every man for himself,” with the emphasis on men.

According to Elinder and Erixson, only two shipwrecks: -- the Titanic and the Birkenhead fit the romantic model of chivalrous men providing for the safety and security of the women and children.

The Titanic needs no explanation. It took better than two hours to sink, the sea was like glass, and the sky was starry and clear. Seventy percent of the females and children survived; a mere 20 percent of the males did. Birkenhead wrecked off the coast of Africa in 1852. The women and children rowed away while the men stood stoically until the sea claimed them. Those few men who survived did so by swimming more than two miles and dodging sharks with every stroke.

All of the other disasters showed the male passengers, captains, and crew members frantically saving themselves at the expense of females and children. As a result, the plight of the women and children was catastrophic. In some cases, no woman or child survived the wreck; only men stayed alive.

It is a challenge to even know where to begin in pulling apart the difficulties inherent in this study. First, they did not analyze three hundred years of shipwrecks, but rather the time period between 1852 and 2011. Second, a mere eighteen wrecks were surveyed, mainly because they were the only ones for which reliable data existed. Third, and most importantly, human experience rarely lends itself to the sterility of arithmetic. Figures are important, but they do not and cannot describe circumstances and conditions.

I read the entire study and with the exceptions of the Titanic and the Birkenhead, found the statistics and conclusions deficient. In almost every case, the authors claimed that actual eyewitness reports were “scarce” or there was “limited information about the behavior of the crew.” Thus, actual eyewitness accounts of these tragedies were virtually ignored. But, it is precisely the eyewitness accounts of the wrecks that are so necessary in fleshing out the survival statistics and giving them true meaning. In my research, I found highly charged descriptions by eyewitnesses and sworn testimony before courts of inquiry that seriously challenged the conclusions wrought by mere numbers. The fact that so many women and children but fewer men died in sixteen of these wrecks does not disparage the chivalry of men, because the numbers alone belie the conditions. No matter how chivalrous or scrupulous the men on board could possibly be, in so many of these disasters, conditions overwhelmed intentions.

When the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915, the authors found the qualitative research “unsatisfactory” and they described conditions in very general terms. I found the opposite to be true. The fact that women and children did not receive a clear-cut survival advantage over the men in no way diminished the heroism of the men involved. The ship sank in eighteen minutes. More to the point, it rolled over as it went down. In spite of this, the eyewitness accounts demonstrate the chivalrous conduct on board. Alice Lines, one of the survivors, wrote a stunning tribute to two men: Arthur Vanderbilt and Ronald Denyer. They dressed females and especially children in life vests and physically placed them in life boats. These efforts cost both men their lives. Had Vanderbilt followed the protocols suggested in the study, he surely would have put himself first. He was one of the richest men in the world and therefore, had so much to lose. In sworn testimony, two crewmen, eighteen-year-old Leslie Morton and twenty-six-year-old Joseph Parry spent their time loading women and children into the lifeboats. When the ship rolled, they dove into the water and continued their heroic work. The pair was credited with saving nearly one hundred lives.

In nearly every other example described in the study, similar eyewitness reports can be found attesting to the courage of the male passengers and crews. On the Princess Victoria, which sank in a gale, no woman or child survived. Yet the eyewitness reports showed that women and children were loaded into the first boat. Tragically, this boat was smashed against the ship’s side by a giant wave. No one in that boat survived. Captain Ferguson, Radio Man David Broadfoot, and all of the officers remained at their posts. None of them survived the ordeal either. When the S.S. Goldengate caught fire, many men worked heroically to save the women and children. Many women and children were in the first boat to be launched, but the boat tipped, spilling them into the water. A sailor dove overboard, righted the boat and helped the women and children into it. A man named Wood surrendered his own life preserver to a female passenger. Tragically, she died in spite of his gallantry. Other ships in the study went down so quickly that there was no time for heroics. The Bulgaria sank in between two and eight minutes. The Estonia flooded so rapidly that approximately six hundred passengers were trapped in their cabins. The Empress of Ireland went down in fourteen minutes. Most of the passengers were asleep in their cabins and stood no chance, regardless of gender. The RMS Atlantic had separate berths for males and females. Single males bunked at the bow, single females at the stern. Married couples were given berths mid-ship. The stern broke apart and flooded so quickly that no female from that section of the ship survived. The flooding reached the mid-section so rapidly that the married couples were trapped. The men there could have saved themselves had they chosen to climb the riggings and ropes that became available. They chose to die with their wives.

As to the male captains and crew members, the study bemoans the fact that only seven captains actually went down with the ships and that crew members had greater survival rates than passengers, especially female passengers. Once again, numbers alone distort reality. The accounts show that the vast majority stayed at their posts until the very end. Their survival was due to their strength and perseverance; not to a lack of chivalry. Captain Luce of the Arctic stayed at his post until the ship sank. He survived by clinging to debris for two days in the Atlantic Ocean until a passing boat rescued him. Is he to apologize for his amazing strength and survival? Lusitania actually had two captains, Turner and Anderson. Both stayed at their posts until the ship rolled and they were thrown into the water. Turner survived, Anderson drowned. Both were commended for their dedication.

I could go on with an even greater analysis of the conditions the men, women, and children faced in these horrible events. Suffice it to say that statistics can be useful, but they only provide a glimpse into the experience. To the media pundits and Swedish economists who trumpeted the exposure of the selfishness of men; male chivalry is not a myth and it is not dead or dying. Just ask the women whose lives were saved in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater when gallant men stepped up and took the bullets that were meant for others.

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