For other uses, see Women and children first (disambiguation).
"Women and children first" (or to a lesser extent, the Birkenhead Drill) is a historical code of conduct whereby the lives of women and children were to be saved first in a life-threatening situation (typically abandoning ship, when survival resources such as lifeboats were limited).
While the phrase first appeared in the 1860 novel Harrington: A Story of True Love, by William Douglas O'Connor, the first documented application of "women and children first" occurred during the 1852 evacuation of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead. It is, however, most famously associated with the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912. As a code of conduct, "women and children first" has no basis in maritime law, and according to University of Greenwich disaster evacuation expert Professor Ed Galea, in modern-day evacuations people will usually "help the most vulnerable to leave the scene first. It's not necessarily women, but is likely to be the injured, elderly and young children." Furthermore, the results of a 2012 Uppsala University study suggest that the application of "women and children first" may have, in practice, been the exception rather than the rule.
2 Wider implications,
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During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ships typically did not carry enough lifeboats to save all the passengers and crew in the event of disaster.
The first-known appearance of the phrase "women and children first" occurred in the sentimental 1860 novel Harrington: A Story of True Love, during the recounting of the death of the father (Captain Harrington) of the eponymous character (John Harrington). Captain Harrington's fictional death illustrates not only the concept of "women and children first" but also that of "the captain goes down with his ship".
'Back from the boats,' Captain Harrington shouts, catchin' up the hand-spike. 'The first man that touches a boat I'll brain. Women and children first, men.'
... 'Timbs,' says he, 'give my love to my wife and boy, if I never see 'em again. God bless ye, men.'... Last thing they saw through the fog was the captain flingin' a hatch overboard, and jumpin' after it. But that sea was too cold for a man to be in long...'
Captain Eldad paused, wiping away with his sleeve the salt tears which the simple epic of a brave man's death brought to his eyes. "That was the story, and them was the last words Timbs brought home to your mother ... An' that's the way he died. Women and children saved. That's a comfort...But he died...
"It was a manly way to leave the world," John Harrington said. "Life is sweet to me with the memory of such a father."
--William Douglas O'Connor, Harrington: A Story of True Love (1860)
In 1870, answering a question at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom about the sinking of the paddle steamer Normandy, George Shaw-Lefevre said that
"in the opinion of the Board of Trade, it will not be possible to compel the passenger steamers running between England and France to have boats sufficient for the very numerous passengers they often carry. They would encumber the decks, and rather add to the danger than detract from it"
By the turn of the 20th century, larger ships meant more people could travel, but safety rules regarding lifeboats remained out of date: for example, British legislation concerning the number of lifeboats was based on the tonnage of a vessel and only encompassed vessels of "10,000 gross tons and over". The result was that a sinking usually involved a moral dilemma for passengers and crew as to whose lives should be saved with the limited available lifeboats.
The practice of women and children first arose from the chivalrous actions of soldiers during the sinking of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead in 1852 after it struck rocks. The captain promptly ordered the wives and children aboard (20 in all) to enter one of the small boats available while the men aboard were set to trying to save the ship. When the ship did break up, the colonel countermanded the captain's order to make for the boats as he thought they would be swamped - the troops obeyed. Only about 25% of the men survived the wreck and none of the senior officers did. The sinking was memorialized in newspapers and paintings of the time, and in poems such as Rudyard Kipling's 1893 "Soldier an' Sailor Too". Samuel Smiles, in his 1859 book Self-Help, described the principle being applied during Siege of Lucknow.
The phrase was popularised by its usage on the RMS Titanic. The Second Officer suggested to Captain Smith, "Hadn't we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?", to which the captain responded: "women and children in and lower away". The First and Second officers interpreted the evacuation order differently; one took it to mean women and children first, while the other took it to mean women and children only. Thus one of the officers lowered lifeboats with empty seats if there were no women and children waiting to board, while the other allowed a limited number of men to board if all the nearby women and children had embarked. As a consequence, 74% of the women and 52% of the children on board were saved, but only 20% of the men. Some officers on the Titanic misinterpreted the order from Captain Smith, and tried to prevent men from boarding the lifeboats. It was intended that women and children would board first, with any remaining free spaces for men. Because so few men were saved on the Titanic, those who did survive, like White Star official J. Bruce Ismay, were initially branded as cowards.
There is no legal basis for the protocol of women and children first in international maritime law -- according to International Maritime Organization regulations, ships have 30 minutes to load all passengers into lifeboats and maneuver the boats away. History has furthermore shown that application of the protocol has been the exception rather than the rule. An Uppsala University study published in April 2012 analyzed maritime disasters covering a period of one and a half centuries, from 1852 to 2011, finding that of the eighteen disasters studied, in eleven cases the "women and children first" order was not given (in five it was given, and two cases were unknown). The same study found that crew members have a relative survival advantage over passengers. The cases of RMS Titanic and HMS Birkenhead may therefore not be representative of maritime conduct in general.
The Uppsala study also found that general survival rates have been in favor of adult males rather than women or children. Cultural, social and physiological factors may have played their parts in this discrepancy. During the 1859 sinking of the Royal Charter, the women were still dressing below decks when they should have been mustering with the men on the deck to abandon ship. Also, the restrictive, multi-layered clothing prescribed by Victorian fashion limited womens' ability to swim in the heavy surf.
A more recent application of "women and children first" occurred in March 2011, when a floating restaurant in Covington, Kentucky tore from its moorings, stranding 83 people on the Ohio River. Women were rescued first.
Some writers have argued that the idea of men always putting women first in emergencies has been linked to concepts of essential gender differences that can be then used to justify denying women political equality. Lucy Delap of Cambridge University writes that the British ruling class used the idea of male chivalry at sea to justify denying women the right to vote, contending that since men always behaved with chivalry by putting the interests (and lives) of women first, women didn't need to vote.
Masculists characterize this as female privilege and male disposability while feminists characterise it as benevolent sexism and male privilege.