Cynthia A. Kierner: Women and Children First?

Inventing DisasterToday we welcome a guest post from Cynthia A. Kierner, author of Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood, published this month by UNC Press.

When hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and other disasters strike, we count our losses, search for causes, commiserate with victims, and initiate relief efforts. Amply illustrated and expansively researched, Inventing Disaster explains the origins and development of this predictable, even ritualized, culture of calamity over three centuries, exploring its roots in the revolutions in science, information, and emotion that were part of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America.

Inventing Disaster is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Women and Children First?

In September 1854, the S.S. Arctic collided with another ship, exploded, caught fire, and ultimately sank off the coast of Newfoundland. More than 300 people died in this steamboat disaster, which was one of many that took the lives of thousands of nineteenth-century Americans.

The Arctic was a special case, though, because all of the women and children aboard the ship died horrifically—devoured by raging flames or churning seas—while a significant number of the male passengers and crewmembers survived.  Many Americans found the contrast with the wreck of the British steamboat Birkenhead, two years earlier, especially galling.  Of the 650 people aboard the Birkenhead, only 192 survived, but nearly all of the women and children were saved.

The comparison made Americans—and especially American men—look bad, to say the least. One widely circulating press account of the Arctic disaster condemned the “unmanly spectacle” of so many “robust cowards . . . treacherously deserting feeble and delicate women, and shutting their ears to cries from little children” as they fled the scene in their ship’s lifeboats. This scene, and the values it represented, differed dramatically—and distressingly—from that of the “heroic band” of British men aboard the Birkenhead, who stoically sacrificed their own lives as the women and children were saved. Were American men heartless cowards, unwilling or unable to replicate the heroics of their lionhearted British counterparts?

In fact, what had happened aboard the Birkenhead was quite extraordinary. The admonition to save “women and children first” sustained a myth of male sacrifice and gallantry that had little basis in reality. Women and children were more often the last to be rescued in part because men preferred to save themselves and their ship’s valuable cargoes.  At the same time, cultural conventions—including the belief that ladies should be frail, unathletic, and dependent—made it difficult for women to save themselves.

“Women and children first” was an important fiction that helped to justify the power of white men in a society whose deeply held ideal of masculinity gave them near-absolute authority while also obliging them to protect the women and children they lorded over. The truth was that in most steamboat explosions and other disasters, women and children died or were injured in disproportionately high numbers. Such was the case in Richmond, Virginia, in 1811, when a horrific theater fire killed at least seventy-six people, the overwhelming majority of whom were women and youngsters. Noting the gender-skewed death toll, one Baltimore newspaper editor declared, disapprovingly, “A similar conflagration in this City, would have been infinitely less fatal.”

He was probably wrong. The architecture and etiquette of theaters, like that of steamboats, enclosed respectable women in spaces that were secluded—to shield them from corruption by the licentious hoards—and difficult to escape. Cumbersome clothing, along with confinement in the theater’s boxes or the steamboat’s “ladies’ cabin,” helped cause the high numbers of female fatalities.

Architecture and etiquette, in turn, mirrored laws governing women and families through the Civil War era. Segregating and confining women—supposedly for their own protection—justified the common law doctrine of coverture, which prevented wives from controlling property, suing in court, or otherwise exercising any legal or civil rights. Under coverture, wrote the English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended . . . or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.”

Like seating arrangements in theaters and on ships, the law derived from the assumption that “ladies” were weak and needed male protection—or, conversely, that women were unruly and needed male governance. Both ideas had deep roots in Western culture and, like the legal doctrines they inspired, both also left wives vulnerable to physical violence at the hands of their husbands and precluded them from getting custody of their children—who were essentially their father’s property—in the unlikely event that they succeeded in obtaining a legal separation or divorce.

Early feminists argued that because men were selfish, violent, and both unwilling and unable to protect women, women needed property rights, voting rights, and overall equality. Reliance on men, even well meaning ones, left women and their children vulnerable on steamboats and in theaters, as in everyday life.


Photo by George Mason University / Creative Services

Cynthia A. Kierner is professor of history at George Mason University and the author of Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello.  For more information, visit the author’s website.