April 11 2007
Come Sunday it will be ninety-five years since that great ship the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. A stunning statistic from the calamity reveals the ethos of the day: While seventy-four percent of the female passengers survived, eighty percent of the men aboard the tragic luxury liner perished. The rule for the lifeboats: women and children first.
A chivalrous ideal worth dying for in 1912, the notion that women and children deserve special protection by men is considered by many to be politically incorrect today. Some women might even be offended by it. Of course, the standards of chivalric behavior, so ingrained for so long, haven't been stamped out altogether. As Carey Roberts observes of a more recent incident of chivalry:
"Even in the heat of battle, chivalry rules the day. Remember Jessica Lynch, that G.I. Jane-wannabe who passed out after her truck took a wrong turn behind Iraqi enemy lines? Nine men in her company were shot in the head, execution-style.
"But when word filtered back that Lynch was being held in a remote hospital, an elite assault unit of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and Air Force Pararescue Jumpers volunteered to come to the aid of this 19-year-old damsel in distress.
"Try to match that, Sir Galahad!"
Chivalry may have been part of the motivation of the rescue of Jessica Lynch, but it was verboten to talk about this aspect of the saga. The idea that men might be particularly willing to risk their lives to save a woman had to be glossed over, and the Lynch story became a feminist saga of women in the military. Nobody talked about chivalry--even though chivalry may very well be what kept Pvt. Lynch among the living.
Chivalry is a difficult topic for the contemporary world. The very idea of chivalry is inherently subversive; when you talk about chivalry, you are forced to admit the possibility that men and women may be different. IWF's Carrie Lukas characterized chivalry as "the idea that part of being a man (and certainly part of being a gentleman) is to sacrifice willingly to protect those who are more vulnerable," adding that, "of course, all those aboard the Titanic were equally vulnerable to the near freezing water. The men who gave their seats in the lifeboats gave their lives."
Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers invoked the Titanic when reviewing Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield's book Manliness. "The idea of male gallantry makes many women nervous," wrote Hoff Sommers, "suggesting (as it does) that women require special protection. It implies the sexes are objectively different. It tells us that some things are best left to men. Gallantry is a virtue that dare not speak its name."
This kind of gallantry is enshrined in the inscription on a rarely visited memorial to the men of the Titanic in Washington, D.C. "To The brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic--They gave their lives that women and children might be saved," it reads. In the past women honored the heroes of the Titanic by taking flowers to the monument every April 15, a custom no longer observed. Indeed, Hoff Sommers noted that this monument to manliness is now one of the least visited sites in Washington.
If, as Harvey Mansfield argued, it is time we rescue the virtues associated with manliness from the feminist oblivion into which they have been cast, then there is no better place to begin than with the Titanic memorial. This week, as we did last year, the Independent Women's Forum will observe the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic by placing flowers on the monument.
In so doing, we honor men who were brave enough to be gallant.
Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women's Forum.
Read Carrie Lukas' commentary on chivalry here.
Read Christina Hoff Sommers' commentary on chivalry here.