Will the Titanic provide equality & diversity experts with much-needed new case-studies for training on ‘intersectionality’ – roughly to be translated as the point where different discriminations…gender, race, class, religion, nationality… intersect, or maybe collide…like ships and ice-bergs ? Read if you dare.

Intersectionality tells us that individuals discriminated against on one parameter….such as gender … are often similarly discriminated against on other dimensions , such as race and class. The example normally given is that of a poor black woman abused by her black male partner seeking justice from a system where upper class white males pre-dominate. She is assumed to face double or even triple discrimination. How does an individual negotiate such a situation? Will her solidarity with the black community, or her well-founded pessimism as to the outcome stop her complaining to the white establishment about gender-based violence inflicted by a person of her own community? Feminism… often assumed to be a white middle class occupation …has long been accused of ignoring the interests of ‘minority’ women though now ‘intersectionality’ issues are part of the platform of most feminist groups in their efforts to become more inclusive
Anyway, let us get back to the Titanic. The rogue element here is male chivalry.
A recent article in the London Review of Books which considers a series of new Titanic publications …whilst giving due weight to the impact of lack of preparedness (there was no evacuation plan & the crew had not been trained to lower the life-boats); to class (some passages from the third class decks to the life-boats were blocked) thinks that gender is the real breaking story.
First class passengers were 37% more likely to survive than those in third class. But men in all classes were 58% more likely to die than women. Since there were three times as many women as men in Third Class and more or less even numbers in First, sexual selection took its greatest toll there. Or rather women in Third survived at a higher rate than men in First. And First Class male survivors often lived a life of shame for having made it to the life-boat.
The gender differential in survivors is judged to be largely due to the operation of that old code of chivalry… women and children first.
On both sides of the Atlantic this fact was used against feminism, and especially the suffragette movement to demonstrate and illustrate the deep error of their ways. No less a person than Winston Churchill writing to his wife expressed the thought that ‘the strict observation of the great traditions of the sea towards women and children reflects nothing but honour on our civilisation’ and hoped that this would enable ‘some of the young unmarried teachers (aka suffragettes)…..who are so bitter in their sex antagonism and think men so base and vile’ to see the light. Some commentators thought that women arguing for women’s rights should be answered with just one word… ‘Titanic’ and considered that men’s behaviour on the ship had dealt the suffragette movement a mortal blow. Even among the crew chivalry ruled with 87% of women crew surviving compared with 22% men.
We mustn’t overlook nationality and contractual issues also in our search to pin down the elusive intersectionality: the male foreign staff of the first class restaurant suffered the highest proportion of deaths because they weren’t British and worked for a sub-contractor: 3 out of 66 survived compared with 22% of men in the engine room who were hired by the White Star Line directly.
The Edwardian code of chivalry. ..that men defer to women in times of extreme danger… was assumed by many…men and women… to be a natural law. The great suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst claimed that ‘women and children first’ was a rule known to everyone. And one officer zealot, Second Officer Charles Lightoller forced boys as young as 11 out of life-boats (as being neither women nor children) though some men escaped his vigilance by sneaking onto boats when he turned away.
A challenging collision of prejudice and discrimination occurred when the corpulent Dr Henry Frauenthal launched himself on a life-boat and another first class passenger, Mrs. Annie Stengel; this incident was subsequently widely and snidely circulated by Mr Stengel in New York high society circles. However Edwardian anti-semitism suffered a serious blow from the examples of Ben Guggenheim who stayed behind after ushering his young mistress to safety; and of Isidor Strauss (co-owner of Macey’s department store) and his wife of 41 years who chose to die side by side in their First Class deckchairs
So far 2013 has been a good year for promoting the understanding of ‘intersectionality’!
In addition to the Titanic data we have the landmark rulings from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg who had to rule in a face-off between Christian beliefs and sexual orientation. In one case a civil registrar in the UK claimed that her Christian beliefs obliged her to refuse to officiate at ceremonies for civil partnerships of same-sex couples. The Court in Strasbourg upheld her dismissal. In a similar case a counsellor providing psycho-sexual therapy refused to work with same-sex couples arguing that it was incompatible with his Christian beliefs. He also lost his case on the grounds that freedom of individual beliefs could not justify discrimination on grounds of gender. A great victory for secularism and for gender issues across the spectrum.
The court also ruled on two other issues related to wearing a cross which in both cases had resulted in the wearer’s dismissal The tiny cross worn by BA employee Nadia Eweida, was deemed to have no detrimental effect on her ability to perform her job and her dismissal was not upheld. Not so lucky was Devon-based nurse Shirley Chaplin, whose larger cross was considered a possible health and safety hazard on the wards whence she was relegated to a desk job.
Don’t say: got to see that movie one more time
Do say: intersectionality is a tricky concept to work with but definitely worth the effort.