In Shipwrecks, Women and Children Finished Last

By Sophie Bushwick | July 31, 2012 8:30 am


Back in the day, the unwritten rule of “women and children first” always used to govern who got a spot in a lifeboat, and who went stoically down with the ship. After all, 70 percent of the women and children on the Titanic were rescued, versus a mere 20 percent of the adult men. But then a 2010 study compared survival rates for the Titanic and the Lusitania and concluded that this chivalrous doctrine only prevailed in slow wrecks, when social norms had a chance to gain control of the situation. In fast descents, like the Lusitania’s 18-minute destruction, it was the fittest passengers, between the ages of 16 and 35, who had the best chance of survival. And now a new study deals another blow to “women and children first,” suggesting that this norm wasn’t normal at all.

In order to determine who had the best odds of being rescued, Swedish researchers analyzed 15,000 passengers on 18 ships that went down between 1852 and 2011. They discovered that women and children usually received no preferential treatment: men survived twice as often as women, and children were the least likely to escape. And rather than going down with their ships, crewmembers had the best chances of survival. In contrast to the previous study (which only looked at the demises of two ships), the researchers found that the duration of a shipwreck had little impact on whether chivalry prevailed. Instead, the most influential factor in women and children’s treatment was whether the captain of the ship specifically gave a “women and children first” order. Without a direct command, survival of the fittest reigned as the crew and male passengers left women and children to fend for themselves. If chivalry is truly dead, then it looks like it kicked the bucket a long time ago.

Shipwreck image via Shutterstock

  • floodmouse

    Whenever you see a rule that says you “should” do something, you can bet the rule was made because people weren’t doing it. Rules about adultery and theft wouldn’t exist unless people were out there fornicating and pilfering. The “women and children” first rule is no different. The people in charge of keeping order think society would roll along more smoothly if no one violated their marriage vows, took other people’s goats, or let women and children drown. The fact is, rules are mostly wishful thinking unless you have a way to enforce them. You don’t see a whole lot of rules that say things like “scratch when you itch” or “drink when you get thirsty.” A good rule for historical investigation is that if people are loudly proclaiming things SHOULD be done a certain way, those things are actually being done in a completely different manner.

  • Joe

    What does chivalry have to do with it? There were no horses on the Lusitania.

  • Yllaria

    And that’s one point for Joe.

  • Man

    And if chivalry has not kicked the bucket yet, you can be sure I’ll kick its bucket at every opportunity. I happily help weaker friends when needed, regardless of sex. But in a crisis like the Titanic, it makes absolutely no sense for me to put the needs of women and children before my own needs.

  • azhure

    if only there is more life boats during titanic incident, i would love how the movie titanic ends :)

  • Chris

    Children first, absolutely. Because they may not know what to do to help themselves.
    But in this day and age, why should I give consideration to a woman, especially a stranger?

    I find it hypocritical that women are always screaming for equality (and rightly so) until it’s no longer advantageous for them (like on a sinking ship).

    You want equality?

    Then you should fight EQUALLY hard to get to the lifeboat, just like I would be.

    I personally would try to help anyone I could, but not at the expense of my own life…

    The only woman or child I would put before my own life would be my wife and child.

    All others (being “equal” and all) had better take it upon themselves to save their hide.

    Why does everyone applaud the notion of “survival of the fittest” until there’s a woman involved?

  • Katherine

    I hope the authors considered or controlled for swimming ability when they looked at survival. It could explain disproportionate survival with children (limited swimming ability) and pre-women’s-movement women (heavy skirts, limited swimming ability) and with crew members (probably knew how to swim).

    Looking at the survival of women relative to men over time (later, women should know how to swim as well as men do) might show a trend that contradicts the main findings of the authors.

  • Katherine

    @Chris — today’s feminists would probably not be in favor of “women and children first” for the reasons you outlined. They might also dislike being classed with children–it’s patronizing and limiting.

    Please don’t make statements about anyone’s hypocrisy without at least citing some verifiable evidence. It’s unscientific and rude.

  • Pippa

    Thank you Katherine – exactly what I would have said to Chris. I personally object to anyone, male or female, who bullies or pushes ahead of anyone perceived as being weaker than they are.
    As for swimming ability – the one thing that has amazed me over time is research into this. Even now-a-days a huge proportion of (non recreational) sailors cannot swim. The crew would however have a better idea of the plan of the ship and availability of life supporting items – ie stuff likely to float.

  • Ty

    @ Katherine — This! Thank you. I feel like this story didn’t consider physical ability AT ALL. I definitely think any crew member (man or woman) would have a much higher chance of survival because of their knowledge and skill.

  • Jim

    @ Katherine : Pippa……To scold Chris for stating the truth, regardless how hypocritical it may or may not appear to be, doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the truth.

    I’d like to think that I’m a good person and that in an emergency, I’d be the person that would stand my ground and assist others until the very last second before attempting escape, but until you’re in that situation…you don’t have a clue how you’ll react.

    It’s easy to sit in comfort and state how you might or might not react in a life or death situation but the bottom line is…you don’t know. You might save a family member if their within arms length…maybe not. Survival instinct is a strong force to bend when it’s in full force, because at that moment, it is the correct thing to do, ” all social norms aside”.

  • jemand

    I don’t think Jim and Chris get it.

    The “women and children first” meme, has, for a long time, been used to DISMISS women’s rights issues in slow, day to day situations, where it is NOT zero sum. I.e., you don’t need the vote! Men will sacrifice to protect you, see the women and children first rule? Etc.

    It had little to do with what actually happened, or even what SHOULD happen, but was a way to quiet women who were asking for equality in situations where there was no zero sum situation such as a limited lifeboat capacity in a doomed ship.

    Even today, the Titanic is idolized in Christian patriarchy circles for exactly this reason, and is used as a throwaway sop to the feelings of women who, in the day to day of normal living, are expected to “submit” to their husbands and fathers, who’s “responsibilities” only come up in life or death situations such as shipwreck that aren’t likely to ever really HAPPEN.


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