After the near-tragedy of a US Airways crash-landing in the Hudson, some people were surprised to learn that, in evacuating, some of the passengers and crew held to the mandate of "women and children first."
We got a bunch of emails in asking us to address this issue. It's probably not something that often comes up nowadays: after all, most plane crashes don't allow time for evacuation, and it's a testament to the pilot's incredible skill, the crew's efficiency and the quick response of rescue workers that we even have the luxury of discussing this protocol, rather than mourning several hundred deaths. But it did ring strangely quaint - and to some, problematic - to hear such old-fashioned words amidst the setting of a very modern disaster.
First, a few words on the whole "women and children first" thing. It's not a tradition as ancient as the navy; in fact, it can be dated to the 1852 wreck of the British warship HMS Birkenhead. The ship was filled mostly with soldiers and sailors, but also carried 20 women and children on its voyage to South Africa. When the ship ran into a rock that hew the hull in two, the captain shouted, "Every man for himself." However, the soldier's commanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast - to rush the lifeboats might mean that the women and children aboard the boats would be swamped and would perish. Only about 200 people - of 600 - survived the wreck. So, this was a case in which you literally had exclusively soldiers - and then some incidental women and children, who, obviously, were going to take priority. The implementation of the protocol was regarded as a tribute to Seton's bravery, interestingly enough, rather than as a piece of gallantry. Of course, in addition to ingrained notions of protection, there were practical concerns: women's clothing was harder to swim and move in, and if there were children, it was considered preferable to keep them with their mothers.
To a degree, the latter is probably still part of the rationale: as with helping a neighboring child with an oxygen mask, kids need carers: most often, this will be the mother. I doubt anyone would argue that in cases of disaster, children's safety should be a priority. I'd assume too that the old-fashioned protocol serves as some means of organization: someone needs to go first, everyone's panicking - why not women and children? Of course, it doesn't really make sense - and does "women" include the flight attendants? Why, after all, should an able-bodied woman get help before an infirm older man, because of the residual perception of inherent weakness? I'd guess it's probably mostly just unexamined tradition - a lot of pilots are ex-military, and the military is, shall we say, fond of tradition. Yes, it's ludicrous: women and children first down the big slide? If people hadn't been worried about, you know, dying, probably a few of them would have chuckled at the incongruity of hearing those words on an air bus.
But that's the point, isn't it: people almost died! And they didn't die! And as interesting as semantics are, and as much inherent patriarchal nonsense there is in the fabric of society coming out all the time, I for one am not going to get exercised about something someone said - maybe off the top of his head - in an effort to successfully save several hundred lives. I agree that if this is indeed the airline protocol it bears questioning, or at least cogent, non-anachronistic explanation beyond some hoary gallantry. But yesterday what could have been a tragedy, wasn't. We know women and children were evacuated first because they - and the men who followed - lived to talk about it. I would be curious to hear what the women on that flight have to say about it - maybe in, say, a week. But, as Ecclesiastes and the Byrds would have it, for everything there is a season.