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Women and children first? No way, it's every man for himself

Date
Annabel Crabb.

Annabel Crabb. Photo: James Brickwood

NONE OF us can really offer any guarantees about how we would behave, if we found ourselves - all of a sudden - threatened with immediate peril.

Obviously, it would be nice to be one of those quietly heroic or wisecracking martyr characters who expertly saves others before going to a noble, witty end.

Assuming, of course, that such a person actually exists, rather than being a cruel hoax invented by onscreen Bruce Willis to make everyone else on Earth feel like a wimp.

Because the residual, nagging suspicion is that many of us would turn out to be one of those pants-wetting, mercy-begging types, protesting feebly to gunman or carjacker or lifeboat guard about heart problems or dependent children, before expiring in ignominy or - worse - being rescued, only to sink into a slough of self-loathing.

The legend ofTitanic was refloated this week by Australia's national living treasure Clive Palmer, with the sort of pizzazz only achievable by a man who possesses separate custom-built press conference backdrops for ''Rebuilding Century-Old Doomed Craft'' and ''Running Against The Treasurer In His Own Electorate''.

And the legend of Titanic is redolent with laugh-in-the-face-of-fear heroism, like that of the plutocrat passenger Ben Guggenheim, who packed his foxy French mistress into a lifeboat, then - doomed - shimmied into bow tie and tails and ignited a cigar in order to die in style, dispatching a lordly message to his wife: ''Tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.''

Titanic has become an emblem for maritime heroism, especially that of the women-and-children-first variety.

So much so, in fact, that a small but persistent fringe group of men's rights activists planned a march in Washington this year to coincide with the Titanic centenary, entitled: ''Sink Misandry''. These men continue to feel nettled that ladies - despite wanting equality - were nonetheless happy to snaffle the best lifeboat seats 100 years ago.

(Much-circulated are the rather insensitive 1912 remarks of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette and sister of the more famous Christabel, to the effect that ''women and children first'' was a simple human rule, and the observance of that rule on the Titanic was no special reason for chivalric back-patting.)

To the men's rights activists, J. Bruce Ismay - the Titanic chairman who accepted a place in a first-class lifeboat and survived, only to be condemned for his non-adherence to the notion that a British man would rather die himself than take a lifeboat place ahead of a woman - is a folk hero, along the lines of Rosa Parks, instigator of Alabama's famous one-lady bus protest of 1955.

''No one has ever confused Mr Ismay with Ms Parks, but one could ask the same question about both: should someone be deprived of their seat - on a bus, a train, a roller coaster, or even a lifeboat - simply because of their birth class?'' asks one article doing the rounds of men's sites, under various bylines.

''Both Mr Ismay and Ms Parks stayed in their seats, yet Mr Ismay is widely reviled as a coward while Ms Parks is properly lionised as a civil rights icon, because men are expected to give up their seats in the lifeboat for members of the opposite sex. Even today.''

The Sink Misandry rally was called off in the end, due to what the ''A Voice For Men'' website described as a ''most unfortunate and sudden pull-out of needed logistical support''.

But a Swedish study, released last month, does in any event rather debunk the whole notion that women and children historically fare better in shipwrecks than their chivalrous male counterparts.

Uppsala University academics Mikael Elinder and Oscar Erixson explain in their paper ''Every Man For Himself'' that only in two of the 18 catastrophic peacetime sinkings they studied - the Titanic and the 1853 Birkenhead disaster - were women more likely to survive.

Consternating for the Brits, the authors also reported that women fared worse in British maritime disasters - where they had only a 13.9 per cent survival rate - than they did when sinking under any other flag, in which case prospects improved smartly to one in three.

In that quietly merciless way the Swedes have, the authors suggest that the disproportionate display of chivalry aboard the Titanic might more directly be attributed to the fact that officers shot at men failing to comply with the ''women and children first'' order.

On such tufty, shifting ground are legends built.

By contrast, the hulking shape of Mr Clive Palmer and his Titanic II blueprint, materialising on Monday as Wayne Swan wallowed dangerously in his own turbulent sea of Slippers, hospital cleaners' unions and Forthcoming Horror Budgets, was something of a blessed rescue vessel.

No question here about the order of priority; it was Tricky Economic Portfolio Holders first, all the way, and the Treasurer scrambled aboard the Clife-boat with all the desperation of a doomed below-decks scullery maid.

Every man for himself.

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