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Where Does ‘Women and Children First’ Originate?

It's British, stemming from the "Birkenhead Drill" of 1852.

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Neo-Neocon

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January 21, 2012 - 12:00 am
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Why the great difference between the two ships? After all, they were both British, and carried a roughly equivalent passenger load. It seems that not only was there comparatively little time to spare aboard Lusitania, but the ship was listing badly almost from the start of the crisis. This combination of factors made it nearly impossible to launch most of its lifeboats or to follow the Birkenhead drill in doing so — although, unlike Titanic, the ship was equipped with enough lifeboats to have accommodated all of its passengers.

Of the few boats that did get rapidly launched from the mortally wounded Lusitania as it was going down, several overturned and spilled their load of humanity into the sea. Brute strength, the ability to swim, and resistance to the coldness of the water seem to have been mostly what separated the quick from the dead, rather than any attempt at chivalry.

What does any of this tell us about Concordia, a disaster in which even more people were potentially at risk (about 4200) than on the other ships, but only a very small number lost their lives? Does “women and children first” still hold as a maritime disaster precept?

The answer to the latter question appears to be “not exactly.” Although nothing stops people from behaving that way if they so choose, there’s no official directive for passengers to do anything other than assemble where they’re told to in an orderly fashion and follow instructions, which are not gender-specific. Richard Pellew, chief surveyor for the southeast region at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, had this to say about it:

Women and children first is a Victorian hangover. … It would normally be passengers first and crew last — you need them in emergency procedures to get the passengers off. Most cruise ships have a system where you move passengers to a muster station then move them into the life-saving appliances and take them off sequentially. The last people tend to be the specialists who are looking after the emergency systems.

We don’t know all the facts yet, but reports are that on Concordia the order to launch the lifeboats was delayed until the ship had already started to list significantly, which then hampered the process. Some of the confusion may also have come from the fact that the accident occurred so early in the cruise that there had been no safety drill yet. The survival of nearly all the passengers may be a tribute to the relatively long amount of time the crew had in which to launch the boats, as well as the fact that the ship never completely sank.

So has the “woman and children first” rule finally become “nonsense,” as in Churchill’s quip? In our current world of feminism and equal rights, it’s become harder and harder to continue to justify the Birkenhead drill, except for the need to protect future generations and those who bear them.

But that’s no small thing. As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote in his novel Time Enough For Love:

All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly, which can — and must — be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function.

That is still true in a larger sense, although it needn’t apply to the passengers on every ship that meets with disaster. But the society that ignores it completely is a society that may ultimately depopulate itself.

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Neo-Neocon is a New England-based blogger.
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