Women and Children Not Actually 'First' on Sinking Ships

TitanicTitanicAll Titanic all the time.

Ladies (and children): have you been sauntering through life without a care in the world, safe in the knowledge that, if you're ever trapped on a sinking ship, you'll be whisked away to safety before the menfolk? Sorry to burst your bubble, but it turns out that way more women and children die than men in maritime disasters, and captains and crew actually have the best chance of snagging a lifeboat seat.

But wait! You say. What about the Titanic? Jack and the captain died while Rose and the Unsinkable Molly Brown lived! It turns out that the "women and children first" myth has actually "been nourished by the Titanic disaster," economist Mikael Elinder of Uppsala University, Sweden, told Discovery News. Elinder's team analyzed the fates of over 15,000 people of more than 30 nationalities abroad 18 peace-time shipwrecks from 1852–2011. It only helped to lack a Y chromosome on two ships: the Birkenhead in 1852 and on the Titanic in 1912.

We all know the story behind The Most Important Ship of Our Time. But what happened on the Birkenhead? Legend has it that the commanding officer onboard ordered his men to get women and children off the ship as it began sinking into shark-infested waters (eek!). Thanks to the Lieutenant, not a single woman or child perished. His actions influenced the behavior on the Titanic; when the massive luxury liner sank, the captain told his men to "Be British" and let women and children go first. As a result, 73.3 percent of women survived as opposed to 20.7 percent of men. (Of course, the lower classes weren't even divided by gender or age. "They were simply regarded as mobs, crowds or 'cargo'. You very rarely had women and children of this class and racial background being given precedence in shipwrecks," said one historian.)


Alas (for women and children), that was the last time men acted so gallantly. The study found that women had a lower chance of survival in 11 out of 18 shipwrecks, with a survival rate of 26.9 percent, as opposed to 60.3 percent of men. Only 7 out of 16 captains went down with their ship — remember the recent Costa Concordia disaster? — and the "women and children first" order was given only 5 times out of 18 sinkings.

Researchers determined that the precedent set by the captain is what really matters. "His policy, rather than the moral sentiments of men, determines if women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks. This suggests an important role for leaders in disasters," they wrote. Also: women have the best chance of making it out alive if they stay away from British ships, despite "the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities." Thanks for nothing, Mark Darcy!

The study concluded that "the sinking of the Titanic was exceptional in many ways and that what happened on the Titanic seems to have spurred misconceptions about human behavior in disasters." Next thing, you'll be telling us that the Heart of the Ocean doesn't really exist.

Women and children first? Not Anymore [Discovery News]

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It should be noted that FIRST CLASS women and children were given the highest priority. 97% of women who were riding 1st class on the Titanic survived, only 46% of women in 3rd class survived. As for children, 83% of 1st class children survived. Only... wait for it... 34% of 3rd class children survived.