In much of the initial news reporting the grim discovery of an abandoned lorry with the decomposing bodies of between 20 and 50 migrants in Austria, there was a special mention of the statement from Austrian police that they did not know whether women and children were among the victims.
Why, in 2015, should there be any special and specific reference to the number of women victims of horrifying crimes? Certainly, children in this context warrant that special mention because it gives the reported crime an added dimension of almost incomprehensible cruelty and callousness.
Does a story which reads, for example, “Police have confirmed that the gunman murdered twenty-three people including five women…” put women, even if possibly inadvertently, into a special category? Why not report the story as, “Police have confirmed that the gunman murdered twenty-three people – eighteen men and five women – …”?
Perhaps the special mention of women victims in any crime or natural disaster is a subconscious harking back to some vague notion of male chivalry. Is this a continuation of the heroic and even romantic belief that when a ship sinks, it is women and children first into the lifeboats? Was “women and children first” always the code of conduct for a gallant gentleman?
The first recorded instance of women and children first was when the British Royal Navy troopship “HMS Birkenhead” sank in 1852 with a loss of 365 lives after striking rocks although the most famous occurrence was the sinking of “RMS Titanic” in 1912 which saw more than 1,500 passengers and crew of the total complement of 2,224 die.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries ships did not typically carry enough lifeboats to save all passengers and crew in the event of a disaster and such was the case for “RMS Titanic”.
When the ship’s Second Officer suggested to Captain Edward Smith, “Hadn’t we better get the women and children into the boats sir?” it is recorded that the captain responded, “Women and children in and lower away”. Sadly, 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 nearby while the other allowed a limited number of men to board if all nearby women and children had embarked.
As a consequence, 74% of women and 52% of children on board survived while only 20% of all men were saved. And because many women and children did not survive, the men who did were initially branded as cowards. Clearly these men were not gentlemen according to the then popular sentiment.
A recent study by the Uppsala University in Sweden has discovered that what happened on the “RMS Titanic” was the exception rather than the rule Researchers looked at the survival rates of 18 such catastrophes over the past 300 years and found that overall only 17.8% of women and 34.5% of men survived even though on at least five occasions women were allowed to board lifeboats first.
In the five cases where women (and children) were given priority, it was not usually due to any heroic behaviour but, rather, because the captain threatened to kill any men who tried to save themselves.
Lead researcher Mikael Elinder said, “The Titanic is very different to other maritime disasters. In almost every other incident women and children died to a much larger extent than men, which implies that saving women and children first is a myth”.
“On the Titanic there were reports that shots were fired at men who tried to climb into the lifeboats. On the Birkenhead, the captain is said to have drawn his sword. This seems to be the reason for the exception in the survival rates,” he said.
The academics found British men to be the least chivalrous – the survival rate for women on British vessels which met with disaster was 13.9% compared to the average of 15.3% across all vessels.
“Women and children first” has never been a part of international maritime law and, perhaps surprisingly, British feminists at the time of the sinking of the Titanic were enraged by the behaviour of the Titanic’s captain and crew and this gave rise to the slogan, “Votes not boats”. These feminists believed that the unwritten rule infantilised and thus patronised women.
While this romantic ideal may still exist, recent disasters prove that it is effectively dead.
In January, 2012, the Italian cruise ship, “Costa Concordia” ran aground and partially sank yet the crew refused to put women and children first and actually elbowed women including pregnant mothers aside to get to the lifeboats. The captain later convicted of manslaughter, abandoned ship while some 300 passengers remained on board.
Two noted 20th century wits have allegedly been quoted as commenting on the “women and children first” – Noel Coward, an Englishman, said, “I only travel on Italian ships. In the event of sinking there is none of the women and children first nonsense” while Jean Kerr, an American, said, ”The only reason that they said women and children first is to test the strength of the lifeboats.”
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