Cultural commentator Al Mohler recently covered an unusual study that compared passenger behavior on the Titanic, in 1912, and the Lusitania, in 1915. The study, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that men on the Titanic were more likely than those on the Lusitania to give up their lifeboat seats for women and children. On the Lusitania, which was struck by German torpedoes and sank in 18 minutes, more women and children died than did men, something the study attributes to the men's physical strength and speed in getting to the lifeboats. Put bluntly, the men on the Lusitania acted selfishly, while those on the Titanic showed good manners.
Mohler draws from this study a lesson on gender roles and the created order. He writes that "modern feminists" wish to eliminate "all meaningful gender distinctions," which he believes would lead to the disregard that the Lusitania's men showed for women and children. "Are we really to believe that the moral call that makes men act against their own self-preservation is just a socially constructed artifact of manners?" he asks. "The feminists … call for a world like the Lusitania, but must hope against hope that the world is really more like the Titanic."
Unfortunately, this argument suffers from two serious flaws. First, the most telling of all the statistics is not taken into account: the overwhelming number of upper-class people, male and female, who were rescued on the Titanic. Time magazine reports thusly: "The Titanic's first-class passengers had a 43.9% greater chance of making it off the ship and into a lifeboat than the reference group; the Lusitania's, remarkably, were 11.5% less likely." In other words, it is not so much that men gave their lifeboat seats to women, but that poor men and women gave up their seats to wealthy men and women. On the Titanic, poor women died and rich men lived. Neither today's feminists nor Mohler would, I wager, want to support that trend today.
More troubling is the charge that secular feminists—in desiring equal access to educational and vocational opportunities—also want to do away with acts of kindness that men extend to women and children. But do feminists really ask that men stop being caring and nurturing, as they were on the Titanic? I assume that most feminists just want women to be considered as equal to the task—to be seen as courageous, caring, and life-giving as those brave men (and not a few women) on the Titanic.
From a Christian perspective, I hope that believers who identify as feminists would applaud any human action that sides with the cause of the weak. But to assume that women are less responsible, less capable of making virtuous decisions, and less likely to show courage than men—as was the prevailing view of centuries past—is rightly challenged by many feminists today. We must distinguish between biological differences, such as percentage of muscle mass per body weight, and evaluative conclusions about women's character and abilities vis-à-vis men. Thus, any person should help another who is physically weaker. This might mean that a man helps a woman; it might also mean that a young woman helps an old man. The call extended by Christians who are feminists is that men and women alike think of others above themselves, giving first place to the weak, poor, and helpless among them.
Courage to face death to save another's life is not a virtue limited to men. Jesus makes clear that laying down one's life for his or her friends is a call for all his disciples, male and female.
Lynn Cohick is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and author most recently of Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic). She has written for the women's blog about Jesus' mother and mammograms.