Titanic survivor Elsie Bowerman went on to participate in and witness major historical events; she also got to experience the broader opportunities for women in the 20th century.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. (Photo: F.G.O. Stuart (1843-1923) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).
Rowing in a Lifeboat
In the early morning hours of April 15th, Bowerman and her mother left the Titanic in lifeboat six. The boat could have held 65 people, but instead it only carried two men, a boy and 21 women, one of whom was the famous “Unsinkable” Molly Brown.
Bowerman later wrote about the experience: “The silence when the engines stopped was followed by a steward knocking on our door and telling us to go on deck. This we did and were lowered into lifeboats, where we were told to get away from the liner as soon as we could in case of suction. This we did, and to pull an oar in the midst of the Atlantic in April with icebergs floating about, is a strange experience.”
After rowing on the Atlantic, Bowerman and the others were rescued by another ship, the Carpathia.
Support for Women’s Suffrage
Even before boarding the Titanic, Bowerman had been on history’s cutting edge. In 1909, she’d joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a group headed by Emmeline Pankhurst that was fighting for women to get the right to vote in England.
Bowerman shared her commitment to enfranchising women while studying at Girton College at Cambridge University. In one letter, she wrote, “I always wear my badge in as conspicuous a position as possible in lectures.” After leaving Girton in 1911, Bowerman became an organizer for the WSPU. And she continued her involvement with the organization after her ill-fated voyage on the Titanic.
Service During World War I
The outbreak of World War I changed the political landscape in Britain. Following the example of other WSPU members, Bowerman stepped away from the fight for female suffrage in order to support the war effort. For her wartime contribution, she joined a Scottish women’s hospital unit and traveled to Romania.
Bowerman’s unit ended up retreating to Russia, so she was in St. Petersburg for another key moment in history: the Russian Revolution of 1917. She described seeing: “Great excitement in street – armoured cars rushing up and down – soldiers and civilians marching up and down armed – attention suddenly focused on our hotel & house next door – rain of shots directed on to both buildings as police supposed to be shooting from top storeys – most exciting.”
A Successful Legal Career
After World War I, women in England were granted limited voting rights, and soon other opportunities opened up for the female half of the population. For example, in 1919 the Sex Disqualification Act allowed women to enter professions that had previously barred them, such as accounting and the law.
Bowerman took advantage of this development and trained to become a lawyer; she was admitted to the bar in 1924. She went on to become the first female barrister to practice at the Old Bailey, a famous London courthouse.
World War II and the United Nations
As she did during the First World War, Bowerman offered up her talents during World War II. Her work included the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and a position at the Ministry of Information. Bowerman also joined the BBC, serving as the liaison officer for its North American Service from 1941 to 1945.
After the war ended, the United Nations was formed. Bowerman was tapped to help set up the organization’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1947.
A Rediscovered Portrait
Recently, a small portrait of Bowerman, who died in 1973, was discovered and put up for auction (it was given an estimated price of £1,000, but sold for £2,000 in March 2016). During the auction process, a link to the Titanic was uncovered — it turns out that auctioneer Timothy Medhurst was the great-great-grandson of Robert Hichens, a quartermaster who’d been in lifeboat six with Bowerman.
Before the auction, Medhurst noted, “It is a wonderful thing to be able to look at the same lady who would have looked at my great-great-grandfather over 100 years ago on board a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” The Titanic connection is also a reminder that Bowerman and other survivors experienced a providential escape — Bowerman only went on to vote, have a career and serve her country because she was fortunate enough to survive that long-ago April night. Who knows what her fellow ill-fated passengers might have achieved themselves had that unlucky ship managed to stay afloat?