[Day 51] Why it’s not okay to say “women and children”

I was browsing the news today when I saw this:

Yes, I read the Telegraph. Don’t judge me

Let’s look at the headline again:

Women, children, it didn’t matter to him who he was shooting

I got the “children” part, but how does shooting a woman makes it worse than shooting a man? Why are “women” in the same category with “children”? Are we are also dependent, incapable of making important decisions by ourselves? Or are women superior to men, and thus our lives are worth more?

I have seen the phrase “children and women” in many situations, and it always amazes me that people actually use it, so I looked up the history of the phrase. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “children and women first” first appeared in the 1860 novel Harrington: A Story of True Love, by William Douglas O’Connor. The book told the story of the 1852 evacuation of the Royal Navy troopship HMS Birkenhead. In the book, the good ol’ fashioned Captain told his companion John after the shipwreck: “All the women an’ children saved. That was a comfort, John.”

Ah, how sweet of him to think of the ladies. However, I must remind you that 1860 was still the time of the great Edwardian heroes: men who saw themselves as knights-errant and women as damsels in distress. It was the time when one out of eight humans in the US was enslaved and half a century before women were given the right to vote or to get a college degree.

Even though never backed by law, this phrase soon became the code of conduct in case of maritime disasters. It was popularized after the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912.

The Second Officer suggested to Captain Smith, “Hadn’t we better get the women and children into the boats, sir?”, to which the captain responded: “women and children in and lower away”.

More than just chivalry, this code of conduct is grounded in the fact that women are more vulnerable than men in the case of shipwrecks. It’s a code of conduct but it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone follows it. A group of Swedish economists broke down the data on maritime disasters and found that on average, the survival rate of women was on average about 3/4 that of men, and children had the lowest survival rate of all. Titanic, with that Captain’s order, became an outlier. 74.9% of Titanic female passengers survived while only 16.9% of male passengers did.

Source: Gender, social norms, and survival in maritime disasters


However, I don’t see how this code of conduct is applicable in the case of this shooting tragedy. Are women more likely to die than men when we get shot? You get shot in the head, you die, whether you are a man or a woman.

I’m not here to criticize the person who said this. He is a honeymooner who was still traumatized by the attack. However, I just want to point out that quoting phrases like on the headline of a major newspaper just doesn’t make any sense. A much better headline would be:

Elderly, pregnant women, children, it didn’t matter to him who he was shooting

Some excellent articles regarding the topic:

Costa Concordia: are women still prioritised over men in evacuation procedures?

Whatever happened to women and children first?



[Day 51] Why it’s not okay to say “women and children”

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