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Women and Children First? Hardly Ever Happens

By Madeline Holler |

women and children first, sinking ship

Sounds nice, but women and children first has always been the exception.

Look, I don’t want to ruin the family cruise. I just want to share a little information about survival rates in the very, very rare chance that your ship starts going down. When the alarm bells ring, don’t count on the rallying cry of women and children first at the lifeboats. Instead, clear the way for the captain and the crew. Because that captain? He ain’t going down with the ship.

Some Swedish economists decided to look into who really makes it to shore during shipwrecks — modern ones and some all the way back into the mid-1800s. (The crunched the numbers for the Titanic, too. We’ll get to that in a second.)

Authors Mikael Elinder of Sweden’s Uppsala University and Oscar Erixson of the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm looked at 18 different shipwrecks and found hardly any evidence of men insisting women and children go first. In fact, they crunched the numbers and found crew members had the highest survival rates at 61 percent. Captains made it out safely 41 percent of the time and male passengers had a 37 percent survival rate. Women made it to shore an abysmal 27 percent of the time and those who did survive had their hearts broken over the tragic 15 percent survival rate of children.

They found some exceptions and, cue the Celine Dion, the Titanic disaster was one of them. The ship’s crew made women and children the priority, researchers found. From the Los Angeles Times:

“On the Titanic, the survival rate of women was more than three times higher than the survival rate of men,” wrote study authors Elinder and Erixson.

The other exception was the British troopship the Birkenhead which sank in 1852 off the coast of South Africa. From the LA Times:

The vessel was carrying hundreds of British military personnel and their families when it struck a rock and began to sink in shark-infested waters. The ship lacked sufficient lifeboats, so commanders ordered that they be filled with women and children. The men were ordered to stand on deck and not attempt to swim for the lifeboats as the ship sank.

Like the Titanic, the disaster became the subject of numerous songs, stories and paintings. And the so-called Birkenhead Drill became a symbol of English stoicism and valor in face of almost certain death.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did not include the Contra Costa shipwreck from last year when the Italian captain notoriously abandoned the sinking vessel while passengers were still aboard and 32 people killed.

There’s no actual law that women and children have priority over men, just something that came out of the Birkenhead disaster and ignored ever since.

Are you surprised?

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About Madeline Holler

madeline-holler

Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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2 thoughts on “Women and Children First? Hardly Ever Happens

  1. Richan says:

    At the very least it should be “children first” what kind of person could live with themselves knowing they survived at the expense of a child?

  2. Diera says:

    I think children should be prioritized, but I’m not sure I should get preference ahead of my husband, or ahead of any guy for that matter. I’m sure their desire to live is as great as mine.

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