Over at Instapundit there is an article/discussion offering chivalry as the antidote to feminist charges of toxic masculinity. Specifically, the article points to the men on the Titanic as the gold standard for noble masculinity. Few conservatives would argue with this sentiment. One commenter approvingly offered a Heinlein quote:
Attempts to formulate a “perfect society” on any foundation other than “women and children first!” is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal.
I wasn’t familiar with the quote, but with a bit of searching found a more full version of it (all emphasis mine):
All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly which can–and must–be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a “perfect society” on any foundation other than “Women and children first!” is no only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly–and no doubt will keep on trying.
Having not read the book, I don’t know if Heinlein meant the quote to be ironic or not. But either way, the claim that Women and Children First (WACF) is a practical philosophy in opposition to starry eyed idealists is deeply ironic. For WACF is the philosophy of the hopeless romantic. It stems directly out of the Medieval literary tradition of Courtly Love. Courtly Love is founded on the starry eyed idealism that men suffering for women is the ultimate masculine virtue. Moreover, the more unnecessary the man’s suffering, the greater the masculine virtue. The archetype of noble chivalrous manhood is Sir Lancelot in Chretien de Troyes’ late 1100s tale Sir Lancelot, Knight of the Cart. As you might guess from the title, the cart is central to the moral lesson of the tale. Joseph J. Duggan explains in The Romances of Chretien de Troyes:
Lancelot is also about shame, but a paradoxical shame inflicted in seemingly arbitrary fashion on Lancelot by Queen Guinevere. The scene of Lancelot in the cart, after which Chretien named his romance (Lancelot 24), and by which Godefroy de Lagny calls it (7103), is one of shaming.
Lancelot is searching for the queen and meets a dwarf who is driving a cart… The dwarf tells Lancelot that if he climbs into the vehicle, he will soon know the queen’s whereabouts. Understandably Lancelot is reluctant to ride in this nefarious conveyance in which felons are often transported. His hesitation is occasioned by his receiving contradictory interior advice from Reason and Love. Reason tells him not to do anything that will bring him shame or reproach. Reason, says Chretien, is not in the heart but only in the mouth… Love, however, which does dwell in the heart, advises him to jump into the cart… This is precisely the Lancelot’s problem and the core problematic of Chretien’s romance…
Chivalry is a starry eyed glorification of men’s suffering, and the more capricious the suffering the better. Heinlein’s character makes chivalry out to be a matter of practicality, but as the originators of the genre fully understood it was precisely the opposite.
And it is not merely in fiction that we can see this truth. In the Titanic itself we learned that WACF is a terrible way to approach saving lives on a sinking ship. It is even a terrible way to save the lives of women and children. The reason for this is that women understandably don’t want to separate from their men in times of extreme danger. Their men are their protectors, yet WACF demands that women enter into the terrifying unknown of the life-raft without their men. As a result, women tend to refuse to enter the lifeboats under WACF. In the prototype for WACF, the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead, the women had to be forcibly picked up and dropped into the lifeboats. From the Daily Mail:
Some women did not want to go on their own — they had to be torn away from their husbands, carried over to the bulwark and dropped over the ship’s side. Most of the soldiers and sailors aboard drowned or were eaten by sharks, but all the women and children survived, and the chivalric ethos became known as the Birkenhead Drill…
The same problem came up on the Titanic. Women were too afraid to enter the lifeboats without their men, and as a result not just men, but women and children needlessly died:
All 14 lifeboats, the two emergency boats, and two of the Engelhardt boats were launched. These had a capacity of 1,084 passengers. Obviously, many boats were not loaded to full capacity. There were many reasons for this; at first, many women and children were simply unwilling to be lowered 65 feet from the boat deck to the water. Some of the men put in boats were put there simply to show it was safe, and allay the fears of other passengers.
…there was enough lifeboat capacity for ALL women and children (534 persons total), AND 550 men as well. (Total capacity of the boats launched was 1,084.) This explains why, especially as the situation became more urgent, more men were put in the boats. Indeed, if the boat crews had loaded one man for each woman or child loaded, they could have expected to save all women and children, plus as many men.
From an account of the last lifeboat launched from the Titanic:
Collapsible lifeboat D was the ninth and last boat to be lowered from the port side. Second Officer Lightoller had managed to fit the collapsible boat into the now-empty davits of boat 1. He tried to find women to fill it with, but had trouble in finding any. Finally, he said, he managed to fill the boat with 15-20 people…
Mrs. Hoyt gave a concise account of the tragedy to her father. She did not leave her husband’s side until the last boat was being lowered and then she was torn from him and thrown into a boat.
Another woman wasn’t so lucky. She wasn’t physically thrown into a lifeboat, and perished as a result:
On the night of the sinking, Isidor and Ida Straus were seen standing near Lifeboat No. 8 in the company of Mrs. Straus’s maid, Ellen Bird. Although the officer in charge of the lifeboat was willing to allow the elderly couple to board the lifeboat with Miss Bird, Isidor Straus refused to go while there were women and children still remaining on the ship. He urged his wife to board, but she refused, saying, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” Her words were witnessed by those already in Lifeboat No. 8 as well as many others who were on the boat deck at the time. Isidor and Ida were last seen standing arm in arm on the deck.
We know from another account of the loading of Lifeboat No. 8 that there was plenty of room for Mr. and Mrs Strauss. We also learn of another woman who survived only because she was physically thrown into the lifeboat. From the Encyclopedia Titanica:
Only twenty women were near the boat, and these were put in. My daughter Ruth was among the first, but I said that I wouldn’t go if my husband did not accompany me. There was room for fourteen more after the last woman had found her place, and they all pleaded to let the men take the empty seats.
“But the Captain said that he would not allow it. I was frantic. There was that boat, ready to be lowered into the water and only half full. Then the order came to lower. The men were pleading for permission to step in, and one came forward to take a place next to his wife. I heard a shot and I am sure it was he that went down.
“Then the boat swung out from the deck. I was still with my husband, and Ruth had already disappeared below the deck. I gave a great cry—I remember perfectly calling out the name of my daughter—and two men tore me from my husband’s side, lifted me, one by the head and one by the feet, and dropped me over the side of the deck into the lowering boat. I struck on the back of my head, but I had furs on, and that fact probably saved me from greater injury.
“The terrible thing was that we had so much room left for the poor men who were snatched away…
The story of the death of Isador Strauss and her husband is indeed a romantic one, but it is not a story of practicality. Had Mr. Strauss not refused to enter the lifeboat, Mrs. Strauss would have been saved. The focus on romance over practicality costs lives, not just of men, but of women and children as well.