THE WAY I SEE it is like this: I am on some ship going to Europe and in the middle of a beautiful day bells ring and whistles blow and all of a sudden there is the sickening crunch of steel hitting hard ice. We have hit an iceberg. There is panic, people rush for the life boats, and someone yells, "Women and children first!" What do I do?

In the old days, in the days before the women's movement, there is little doubt about what I would do. I would wait until the women and children were safely aboard the boats before I would board one myself. I would do what the men did on the Titanic -- those brave souls who put the women and children into the lifeboats, waved goodbye to them, and then went down with the ship.

Even as a kid I knew the chances of this happening to me were slight. Still, I worried about it. I had already learned that there were things expected of me that seemed to make no sense. I was expected, for some reason, to pull out the chair of my date as if she were too weak to do the job herself and I was expected to open her car door, let her in and out of elevators first, and walk on the curb side of her -- a holdover, I was once told, of the days when horses splashed mud as they trotted by. This was not a big problem in my old nieghborhood.

From this sort of nonsense it is but a short step indeed to what I call the Titanic Rule.This holds that a woman's life is somehow worth more than a man's. The Titanic Rule probably had its genesis in the biological fact that, at one time, a woman's life really was more valuable than a man's. A tribe with 50 men and one woman could only have one new baby a year. A tribe with 50 women and one man can, with a little effort, have 50 babies a year. You can see right off who is more valuable to society.

But by the time the Titanic went down in 1912, there were far more than one or two women around and it is reasonable to assume that the action of the men was not based on some biological imperative, but on chivalry instead. The real reason women were allowed to go the lifeboats is that men considered themselves noble, brave. They were warriors. They knew how to die. To let women live is -- there is no other word for it -- manly. Enough said.

But not by me. What I did recently was go around the office and get on the phone and ask people -- men and women -- what they would do if their ship hit the proverbial iceberg. I asked men if they would step aside for women and I asked women if they expected ment to move aside for them, I want to report that the Titanic Rule is alive and well. Only two persons, a man and a woman, said the hell with the rule -- people are people. The others all thought that men should step aside for the women. Rarely has there been such unanimity among the sexes.

It's hard to know what to make of all this. Time and time again, women cited the strength of men -- their alleged stamina while floating around in the chilly North Atlantic. As for the men, they could not have agreed more. They were stronger and they had more stamina. If you listened real hard, you could almost hear the Tarzan yell.

The two dissenters said nonsense to all this. A man who calls himself a feminist said that first he would try to save all the single heads of families -- male or female. Finally, when he got to the point where he was down to men and women and all things were equal, he would make his decision on the basis of some sort of lottery -- not on the basis of sex. The woman dissenter made somewhat the same point.

With the women maybe you could say that they want it both ways. When it comes to something that counts, and certainly life itself counts, they don't mind being perceived as weak or even madonna-like and therefore more entitled to live. Either way, it is perfectly understandable why they, in this case, would prefer to remain unliberated.

It is the men who are the mystery. Here they are clinging to some out-moded notion of chivalry willing to go down with the ship when everyone from Gloria Steinem to maybe the guy on the corner says you don't have to do it anymore. Some of this has to do with a feeling of nobility, with really liking the idea of being able, at last, to show masculinity, nobility, courage. But some of it, I otherwise, how to be the first guy to say no when that persons yells "women and children first." What you have in the end is the men staying because they would rather die than be considered sissies. This is not the Titanic.

It's a ship of fools.