Ask A Feminist #3: Women and children first?

by Laura // 25 January 2012, 11:40

Tags: ask a feminist, chivalry, sexism, stereotypes

In the wake of the Costa Concordia tragedy, this week's Ask A Feminist considers whether "women and children first" is a feminist position.
yellow question mark chalked on a tarmac road
Dear Laura,

I was talking to a friend about an article I came across recently and told her how I was puzzled to read that the "women and children first" saying used in a sinking ship situation was still being used nowadays. My friend answered that she could not understand how as a feminist I could say that. I went on to explain to her that for me, feminism was about seeking equality, not privilege; that I don't want men to make room for me, I don't want more rights than them, I want them and us to be on the same level and make my own way in life and when I succeed or fail, I want it to be about who I am as a person, not about my gender.

So here I am all confused: can I still call myself a feminist if I believe that the "women and children first" is outdated and should not be used any more (and that feminism is about equality, not privilege)?

- Selie

Feminism means different things to different people. In academic feminism in particular, there is an ongoing debate as to whether feminists should be focusing on achieving equality with men or on obtaining an "equality of difference". The latter position holds that rather than enabling women to succeed in a society structured around men's values and concerns, we should recognise that women are different from men and try and rebuild society with women's concerns, needs and values in mind.

While I personally find some of the foundations of this argument problematic (there is a tendency to make essentialist claims about women's nature, for example that we are by default more caring than men), I find it to be more practical and progressive than the equality with men position. The reality is that women and other people who suffer discrimination in our society do face different problems and have different needs to the rich, white, able-bodied, cisgendered men who control society and set out the rules of the game. This means we can't simply argue that women should be treated in exactly the same way as these men.

For example, demanding that a woman work full time, including evenings, in a workplace with no childcare facilities, and does not take extended breaks from that workplace if she wants to move up the career ladder like her male colleagues ignores the fact that many women give birth, breastfeed and have caring responsibilities. Treating her in the same way as a male colleague - who in today's society most likely has a wife or girlfriend to take care of the kids while he focuses on his career - will therefore not bring about equality, as her position in society and her needs as a woman are different.

When it comes to the idea that women should be evacuated first from a sinking ship (I'm going to ignore the children part here as that's another issue entirely), we need to look at the reasoning behind the assertion that women should be treated differently to men in order to judge whether it is feminist or not. Wikipedia points to chivalry as the underlying motive for women being saved first from sinking ships. Although chivalry is a medieval concept, of which a man's duty to the women in his life was but one part, in more modern times it has come to mean that men should protect and help women in certain situations just because we're women. The most common examples of chivalry include opening doors for women, pulling out our chairs so we can sit down, paying for dates and offering us a hand when we get in and out of transport.

The common theme here is that women are weak and incapable of looking after ourselves. In the case of the sinking ship, the fact that women are grouped with children, who (depending on age and development) are generally weaker and in need of supervision, confirms this. While there is nothing inherently wrong with being weak or needing support (the general view of these as undesirable traits feeds in to discrimination against disabled people), if we look at the world around us, containing billions of women and men of different sizes, strengths and abilities, the assertion that being female makes an individual weak and more in need of protection than a man is clearly false. More to the point, it's sexist -- against both women and men. Why should an evacuation official prioritise getting a woman into a lifeboat over a man? Particularly if that woman is stronger and more likely to be able to survive until help arrives than the man?

So, personally I don't think "women and children first" is compatible with feminism as I understand it (though I would strongly argue that children should be saved first). As far as I'm concerned you can certainly call yourself a feminist if you agree with me! But, as always, I'd welcome thoughts from everyone else.

Photo by VirtualEyeSee, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Want to Ask A Feminist? Email laura[at]thefword.org.uk.

Comments From You

Feminist Avatar // Posted 25 January 2012 at 11:58

If you are in academia or have access to a research library, then this article discusses the origins of the 'women and children first' idea:

Lucy Delap, ‘’Thus Does Man Prove His Fitness to Be the Master of Things’: Shipwrecks, Chivalry and Masculinities in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, Cultural and Social History, 3, (2006), pp. 45–74

The gist is that the idea was created in the Victorian period after a shipwreck where all the women drowned after the men refused to give up their places on the lifeboats caused an uproar in the press. But it was not really until the Titanic that you got a disaster where this idea was tested and it was right in the middle of the suffrage movement when many women just refused to get in the boats first for reasons of equality or because they wanted to remain with loved ones.

Like Laura, I tend to think that even in a model of 'equal but different' feminism, there is no reason why women would take precedence on boats in an emergency. The only argument for this might be that more men might be stronger swimmers, but it is likely that a fair few women will be strongers swimmers than many men... so why do it by gender? In a modern ship, safety requirements require not only that there are enough safety boats for everyone, but that there is enough on each side of the ship (so there are more than enough spaces). Given that, I don't see why this is an issue. Put people on the boats in family groups or in the order that works for the easiest evacuation.

Harriet // Posted 25 January 2012 at 12:29

To me, chivalry in general (of which 'women and children first' is a part) is part of the discourse of masculine protection. Put simply, the underlying logic of masculine protection is that 'womenandchildren' (who belong in the private sphere) are inherently weak and need protecting from the big bad world of the public sphere by a lovely strong, benevolent patriarch.

The main problem with this is that this 'protection' should be understood as a kind of 'protection racket': in order to be properly protected, womenandchildren must accept to some extent the rules and discipline of the patriarch, which are, after all, only designed for their protection. This in turn becomes an excuse for violence and control - if you are not acting like a 'proper woman' (as defined by the benevolent patriarch), you do not deserve protection as one. This can be an excuse for all kinds of violence, threatening behaviour, and control.

So for me, disagreeing with 'women and children first' reaffirms your feminism.

Clara X // Posted 25 January 2012 at 16:09

I support the general theme -- "women and children first" assumes that women are weaker. Children first, by all means, but not women simply because they are women.

However, I can't help thinking about the utilitarian aspects of this. If, to take a very extreme example, there are only a small number of humans left, then saving a greater number of women than men is logical. In much more normal circumstances, saving nursing mothers should take priority, because their survival would be beneficial to the physical health of their children. And by that logic I'd go for saving the parents of young children before other adults.

Laurel // Posted 25 January 2012 at 16:51

id like to chime in the argument between the 2 academic threads that seems to me to be a lot more common. the analogy above about working full time? being equal (as opposed to being equal and different) doesnt always mean having to meet them male standard. the alternative could be, for instance, more maternity leave and flexible hours for men as well, which would likely lead to women being less stigmatised in the workplace and allow for men to take that role where possible/desirable.

onemu // Posted 26 March 2012 at 22:14

I believe that all humans are of equal importance regardless of gender or any other factor. I wouldn't want to leave the men I love (my brothers, dad, partner) behind for the sake for being a woman! I didn't choose to be a woman, just like the males in my life didn't choose to be male, the idea that a gender should make you more or less saveable is ridiculous!

JericaLily // Posted 07 December 2012 at 15:46

Maybe it makes sense because they thought that since the children were going first in any case, it'd be better to have women take care of them than the men. (We still have the core belief that children belong more with mothers than with fathers and though this isn't true in every case, it seems to still be the majority idea.)

I imagine a lifeboat filled with children and a few men to watch over/get them all to safety. Not sure about how that would work out.

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