In my last post I shared accounts from Lifeboat 8 on the Titanic demonstrating the chaos and loss of life the chivalrous WACF policy caused. Ida Strauss and her husband perished after Isidor chivalrously refused to enter the lifeboat, and his wife refused to be saved while he perished.
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.
Mrs. Emil Taussig was only saved because she was physically thrown into the lifeboat:
“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.
There was yet another problem with refusing to allow able bodied men to accompany their families in the lifeboats. Someone needed to row the boats.
“When we came on deck,” said Mrs. Taussig, “Capt. Smith was preparing the eighth boat to be let down. There was only one seaman in sight, but a number of stewards had rushed up between the crowding men and women. The Captain turned to the stewards and asked them if they knew how to row. They answered ‘Yes’ hastily, and four of them were allowed to jump in.
“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.
[Mrs. Taussig] said that her husband, who was abandoned while the half-filled boat was lowered, was an expert oarsman and volunteered his services to the Captain.
But he was ordered back,” she said, while the four stewards who couldn’t row at all were permitted to jump in.
In another account this is spun as a feelgood story of girlpower coming to the rescue, filling in where feckless men were too incompetent to do the task:
The officers were strict on the port side of the ship and allowed only women passengers to enter the boats. Mrs. Penasco was persuaded to enter it together with her maid, Fermina Oliva. When the lifeboat was in the water, she realized her husband probably would not survived and had to be comforted by the Countess of Rothes. About 20 or 22 ladies had found seats in the boat, including Mrs. Straus’ maid and Mrs. Allison’s maid. There were four crew; two seamen, a steward and a kitchen hand. There were probably about 26 people in the boat. In the words of Mrs. Swift:
Slowly we dropped down, down and down until the keel of our tiny craft struck the sea and the captain shouted to pull over to a red light in the distance…we also began to realize that the seamen were not oarsmen. One was unable to pull the long heavy oar with any strength and Mrs. Swift took his place….the weak and unskilled steward and some of the other men sat quietly in one end of the boat. The countess of Rothes was an expert oarswoman.‘ (New York Herald, Friday, April 19, 1912)
It is interesting to see that over 100 years ago the narrative of strong women taking over for incompetent men was already firmly entrenched. Moreover, the speed with which the narrative changed is astounding. The memory of the chivalric sacrifice of the men left on deck disappeared in a matter of seconds. The instant the lifeboat hit the water, the new girlpower narrative suddenly sprung forth, fully grown.
Titanic’s lifeboats were designed to hold 65 people. Since there were only 26 people on board there was room for another 39 men on Lifeboat 8. But had these 39 men been allowed to board (and survive), we wouldn’t have nearly as romantic a story, and we also wouldn’t have an empowering story of women stepping in and saving the day where feckless men failed.