Wreck of the Birkenhead

Thomas Hemy's famous painting of soldiers standing fast on HMS Birkenhead while the women and children head off in a lifeboat in the background

"Women and children first" (or to a lesser extent, the Birkenhead Drill[1][2]) is a historical protocol whereby the lives of women and children are saved first in a life-threatening situation (typically abandoning ship, when survivial resources such as lifeboats are limited). The saying is most famously associated with the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912, although the first documented use concerned the wrecking of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead.

History Edit

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. In 1870, answering a question at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom about the sinking of PS Normandy, George Shaw-Lefevre said that[3]
"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the turn of the 20th century larger ships meant more people could travel, but safety rules regarding lifeboats remained out of date: for example, British legislation concerning the number of lifeboats was based on the tonnage of a vessel and only encompassed vessels of "10,000 gross tons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 sinking of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead in 1852, which was memorialized in newspapers and paintings of the time, and in poems such as Rudyard Kipling's "Soldier an' Sailor Too." In that wreck the captain ordered the wives and children aboard (20 in all) to enter the only small lifeboat available, saving them, while the men stayed on board until the ship was wrecked. Only about 25% of the men survived the wreck and none of the senior officers did. Samuel Smiles, in his 1859 book Self-Help, described the principle being applied during Siege of Lucknow.[4] The specific phrase first appeared in a novel by William Douglas O'Connor entitled Harrington: A True Story of Love in 1860.[5]


RMS Titanic survivors aboard a collapsible lifeboat

Although never part of international maritime law, the phrase was popularised by its usage on the RMS Titanic,[6] where, as a consequence of this practice, 74% of the women on board were saved and 52% of the children, but only 20% of the men.[7] Some officers on the Titanic misinterpreted the order from Captain Smith, and tried to prevent men from boarding the lifeboats.[8][9] 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, the men who did survive were initially branded as cowards, including White Star official, J. Bruce Ismay.[10]

There is no legal basis for the protocol of women and children first — according to International Maritime Organization regulations, ships have 30 minutes to load all passengers into lifeboats and maneuver the boats away.[11] 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, found that historical survival rates have been in favor of adult males rather than women or children. The paper analyzed 18 maritime disasters covering a period of one and a half centuries, from 1852 to 2011. The same study found that crew members have a relative survival advantage over passengers. The particular case of RMS Titanic is therefore not representative of maritime conduct in general. [12]

The clothing worn by women, notably in the Victorian era, has played a role in the historical survival rates of men vs women at sea. With the 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; their bulkier clothing also limited their ability to swim in the heavy surf.[13]


In modern times, notions of essential differences between the sexes are often questioned, and many hold the belief that the lives of adult females and males should be valued equally. Some writers have argued that the entire concept of putting women first in an emergency may be merely a means of promoting an idea of essential gender differences which may then be used to justify other inequalities that disfavor women.[14]


  1. Rudyard Kipling (2005). Collected Verse of Rudyard Kipling. Kessinger. p. 305. ISBN 1-4179-0750-9. 
  2. Robert Anson Heinlein (1978). Double Star. Gregg Press. p. 169. ISBN 0-8398-2446-7. 
  3. The Parliamentary debates (Authorized edition), Volume 200, 21 March 1870, p.323-324 H. M. Stationery Office, 1870
  4. Smiles, Samuel (1859). Self-Help. ISBN 1-4068-2123-3. 
  5. "Women and Children First". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 2010-04-16. 
  6. Logan Marshall (2004). Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters. ISBN 1-4191-4735-8. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  7. Anesi, Chuck. "Titanic Casualty Figures". 
  8. Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember. New York, NY: Bantam, 1997, p. 63 ISBN 978-0-553-27827-9
  9. Ballard, Robert D. The Discovery of the Titanic. Toronto: Madison, 1987, p. 37 ISBN 978-0-446-67174-3
  10. Benedict, Michael Les; Gardner, Ray (2000). "When That Great Ship Went Down". In the face of disaster: true stories of Canadian heroes from the archives of Maclean's. New York, N.Y: Viking. p. 204. ISBN 0-670-88883-4. 
  11. Tom de Castella (16 Jan 2012). "Costa Concordia: The Rules of Evacuating a Ship". BBC News. 
  12. Elinder, Mikael; Erixson, Oscar (2012), Every man for himself: Gender, Norms and Survival in Maritime Disasters, Uppsala Universitet., 
  13. John R. Stilgoe (2003). Lifeboat. University of Virginia Press. p. 234. ISBN 0-8139-2221-6. 
  14. Women and Children First: Feminism, Rhetoric, and Public Policy. Suny Press. 2004. ISBN 978-0-7914-8285-8. 

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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