Women and Children First

Phrases that have a historical significance interest me, especially if they are quotes from a historical figure or historical circumstance. For example, Winston Churchill once referred to Neville Chamberlain as a “sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

That phrase is even more interesting to me because Churchill was modifying a saying or principle found in the Bible. In this case it’s Matt. 7:15 where Jesus warns of the dangers associated with false teachers:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15, ESV)

Churchill cleverly used Jesus’ words to get in a major dig on Chamberlain.

The phrase “women and children first” is another interesting phrase based on a historical circumstance and a biblical principle.

The phrase first came into use around 1860 and was used in the context of the sinking of a ship. In 1852 the HMS Birkenhead was on its way to South Africa when it struck rocks off the South African coast. The ship carried 643 people, many of them being soldiers on their way to join their regiments in South Africa. The 74th Highland Regiment was well represented and commanded by Lt. Col. Alexander Seton.

The ship was quickly sinking and there weren’t enough lifeboats to take on all the soldiers plus the women and children who were also on the ship. Lt. Col. Seton of the 74th Highland took command and ordered his men along with men from the 73rd Regiment to form on deck in order that the women and children would find a place in the lifeboats. After the women and children had found a place the youngest soldiers were to board the lifeboats. Most of the soldiers drown and Lt. Col. Seton killed when debris from the ship fell on him. The women and children all survived.

The Birkenhead Drill

Lt. Col. Seton’s actions led to what became known as the Birkenhead Drill which meant in the case of a maritime disaster women and children would get to the lifeboats before the men.

Today few people remember the Birkenhead but do remember the Titanic. In 1912 some 50+ years after the Birkenhead Drill became “unofficial British Maritime policy” the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink. The Birkenhead Drill was put into practice and according to Wiki the following proportions of people were saved:

74% of the women.

52% of the children.

20% of the men.

Oddly enough, it seems the author of the Wiki article sees the display of self-sacrifice as a negative. Here’s the quote from Wiki:

“Some analysts such as Dr Carey Roberts and Dr David Benatar have viewed the policy of “women and children first” (and conscription) as evidence of what Warren Farrell refers to as “male disposability,” where preservation of a woman’s life is given priority over preservation of a man’s life.[5][6] This policy, particularly as applied to incidents like the sinking of the Titanic, resulted in high numbers of widows or orphans who might then face economic and social difficulty.”

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_and_children_first_(saying)>

The snippet from Wiki represents a shift in worldview-a shift from the influence of Christianity towards the influence of Darwinism.

Two basic principles or consequences of embracing Darwinism are survival of the fittest and survival of the most numerous.

The fittest are the males and the more virile the better. The Wiki article notes “male disposability” a contradiction to Darwinism since males are stronger than females and children and therefore, more fit to survive a maritime disaster. If Seton was a Darwinist it would have made prefect sense for him to declare every-man for himself.

Titanic's sinking on a popular but factually i...


In Darwinism it follows that the male has the ability to impregnate more than one woman at a time. Therefore, one male may father hundreds of children through multiple women over the course of his lifetime while one female may mother no more than 20 children or so in a lifetime. The Darwinian principle is that “he who makes the most babies wins” in the sense that the species as a whole has a better chance of survival if there are many. A Darwinist would argue this principle is hard-wired into the male mind.

It’s interesting to note that at the time of the sinking of the Birkenhead Darwin’s Origins of Species was only 7 years away from publication (1859). The book was widely read and by 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic certainly most of the well-read would have been familiar with the ramifications of following Darwinism to its logical conclusions. Yet, as the statistics show, the idea of self-sacrifice so that others might live prevailed as late as 1912.

That was not the case 3 years later in the middle of WW1 when the Germans torpedoed the British ship Lusitania in 1915.

In an article from the British Guardian it is argued that the youngest and fittest survived the sinking of the Lusitania at a higher rate that the older and less fit.  The Guardian argues the reason the youngest and fittest survived at a higher rate had to do with how fast the ship sank. In other words the Titanic sank slowly, thus giving time for the Captain to order some discipline and invoke the Birkenhead Drill. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes and the rule of the day was “everyman for himself” literally. The younger, stronger prevailed thus proving Darwinism.

The argument in The Guardian has some merit in that everyone clearly panicked and no one appeared to gain some control. In the case of the Lusitania the survival instinct of the many trumped any idea of self-sacrifice to save another.

On the other hand maybe there is more here than meets the eye. After all, the Birkenhead sank in 20 minutes only two more minutes than it took the Lusitania to sink. What’s the difference?

I think the differences can be broken down into a few categories.

The first category would be the worldview that was held by the majority of British officers of the time (1852-1912). Christian influence and biblical influence would be the prevailing worldview of British officers and many would be able to quote Scripture and apply the principles.

I said earlier there is a biblical principle behind the saying of “women and children” first. I believe the principle was extracted from something Jesus said:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. (Jn. 15:13, ESV)

It is entirely feasible that Lt. Col. Seton and the Captain of the Titanic were aware of this passage and its meaning.

The verse is a reference to Jesus’ supreme example of love with his sacrificial death on the cross. Christians are called to the same kind of sacrificial giving toward one another even if it means the laying down of one’s life in an imitation of what Christ on the cross did for those who believe.

The second difference is the leadership of Lt. Col. Seton himself. Seton ordered his soldiers not only to assemble on deck but to assist in any way they could to get the life boats away. The soldiers responded just as most of the seamen on the Titanic responded to their Captain’s orders. In both cases discipline triumphed over the very human urge to panic.

The third difference is that Christian influence defined manhood in days past. A British officer who had a Christian worldview commanding soldiers with a similar worldview would think it normal to try to protect the weak even to the point of laying down their own lives. I am not saying this was easy. I am saying there is more here than random heroism and the superb discipline the British Army is noted for.

In researching this story I discovered that such notables like John Dewey (influential in the public school movement in the USA) and Margaret Sanger (founder of the notorious Planned Parenthood) objected to the Birkenhead Drill as it was applied to the Titanic. Dewey and Sanger were Darwinists and they protested the Birkenhead Drill and said their should have been an equalization of the sexes so both sexes would drown equally.

What view dominates are culture today? The worldview of Lt. Col. Seton and the Captain of the Titanic or the Darwinistic worldview of Dewey and Sanger?

If Darwinism is true then there is no real reason Dewey and Sanger are wrong. If Christianity is true it illustrates that man can act against his baser instincts if he is motivated by Christ-like example. At the end of the day the Darwinist is his own best friend and will act accordingly.

Ideas have consequences and truth matters.

5 comments on “Women and Children First

  1. I’m confused by the statement “If Darwinism is true.” Social Darwinism isn’t a matter of true and false, necessarily. Some people may view things from a Social Darwinist perspective, but that’s just one way to look at things, like a Christian perspective. If you’re referring to the theories of Darwin, like those discussed in the Origin of Species, then “true” or “false” makes more sense, as new evidence may one day reject those theories. However, Social Darwinism has existed well before Darwin’s theories (like evolution, for that matter), just as charity and altruism (as well as other basic tenants of Christianity) existed well before Christ.

    So I guess I’m also a little confused about your question. I’m not sure that it’s easy to point out whether our culture (Western culture, I assume?) leans more Social Darwinist or Self-Sacrificial Christian. Not even sure that’s a fair question, considering they neither form a clear dichotomy nor are they the only competing perspectives in Western culture. However, there does seem to be a consistent theme of human beings stepping up to help in times of crisis and emergencies, even offering their lives to help others. While there will always be a few “me first!” types, I think you’ll find those ready to help even if it means putting themselves at risk will almost always be present and carry more gravitas.

    Finally, the Dewey Sanger Titanic objection: is there any actual source for that besides some guy’s blog? It’s the only post and it commented with almost 50 “buy penis drug” posts. Kind hurts its credibility and creeps me out all at the same time.

    • Hello,

      I think you are right with the statement that Social Darwinism isn’t a matter of true and false. It certainly is possible for a person of any world view to do something self-sacrificial.

      It was a a bit odd how this particular post came about. Although I knew of the incident prior it was a fellow pastor who suggested a posting. It was one of those things that scratched a number of my interest itches like history, the Brits and their former empire, western civ and culture and so forth. My major point that perhaps I failed to communicate in the post is the notion that the west is slipping from western Christian influence. Mark Styen in his latest book gives an excellent example citing the Birkenhead Drill. He makes the excellent point that we might not know what we’d do (fight or flee) in a situation but isn’t better to hold to the standard of self-sacrifice and not fulfill it than to hold to the other and fulfill that! And recently he made a similar comparison about the fellow who witnessed the Sandusky atrocities and did nothing of substance.

      Of greater concern to me is the comment about Sanger/Dewey and what you are saying about “it commented.” I’ll go to the site and admit that I did not check out any comments. It simply was a WordPress suggestion that fit my drift. I am familiar however with the world view of Dewey and Sanger so it did not surprise me to read what their response would have been to the Birkenhead Drill via the Titantic.

      In any event thank you for the thoughtful comments.

    • FYI, I did check out the blog you have referred to and that I referenced. It appears to be a dead blog with few postings. It would seem the person never checked his comments for spam. I will keep a more careful eye out before I link. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. No problem. You have a site that’s thoughtful and that you’ve clearly put a lot of effort into, so I was sure you wouldn’t want something like the dead blog post to undermine your points/posts.

  3. […] has always had a particular fury for the relatively recent maritime tradition of saving women and children first in an […]

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