The principle of “women and children first” has deep historical roots, none of which should be blamed on feminism or contemporary gender discussions. Throughout most of history, it made perfect sense for any given society to keep women safe at the expense of men, since the death of every fertile woman meant that the next generation would be smaller. And a smaller generation meant less progress and less protection from neighbouring cultures. So the common practice of having women and children embark first or get help first in case of an accident or emergency, makes perfect sense in this context.
However, we no longer live in historical times, we live in the present. A society’s progress or its safety is no longer determined by the size of the population, it has more to do with having a modern infrastructure, a high level of education and modern defense equipment. Therefore, there is no need to keep on valuing women’s lives higher than the lives of men, as the phrase “women and children first” suggests.
Yet, the belief that women are worth more than men is alive and thriving, something that we are regularly reminded of in case of an accident. About a year ago, US Airways Flight 1549 was forced to land in the Hudson River. Thanks to the skill and experience of the pilot, nobody died or sustained any serious injuries. However, leaving the plane was still a dangerous activity, since the plane was about to sink. So what was the organizing principle for getting out of the plane?
As the evacuation began, with the plane beginning to sink slowly into the water, it was women and children first, with the three flight stewards on board carrying out the evacuation drill. The pilot then walked the length of the plane to make sure everyone was off safely.
“I was saying “relax, relax, women and children first,” said passenger Jeff Kolodjay. “Then the plane was filling with water.”
It seems that we are slow to change some of the patterns in society that guide gender relations, especially the ones that are to men’s disadvantage. If the opposite were true, i.e. if the expression was “men and children first”, would it not have been repeatedly challenged by feminist writers and leading poiticians?
I think it’s high time that we change the phrase “women and children first” to “children first”, or perhaps “parents and children first”. This doesn’t mean that you cannot be a hero as a man, if that is what you want. It simply means that society is no longer demanding that you be a hero, in an era where the previous perks of being a man have been removed.