The phrase and its grave implications about who to save first in a catastrophe are rooted in the shipwrecks of centuries past and popularized by Hollywood’s treatment of the Titanic disaster.

It is getting another airing at a time when, in many societies, women are expected to do most everything men do. Experts say the unwritten law of the sea is a Hollywood-fed myth and a relic of Victorian-era chivalry.

At the center of this round of questions is the prisoners-for-hostages deal between Israel and Hamas in November that prioritized releasing women and children after negotiators agreed that mothers and their children should not be separated. Israelis are overwhelmingly supportive of this approach.

But it leaves behind elderly and injured men during the most chaotic phase of the war, a result that has angered some families.

“To say ‘women and children’ in the 21st century — as if families can be whole without the fathers, as if children that have come back with their fathers still there can in any way start recovering from the trauma — is unthinkable,” Sharone Lifshitz, whose mother was freed in October and whose 83-year-old father, Oded, remains in captivity, told The Associated Press.

Of about 240 people who were kidnapped during Hamas’ October 7 rampage, 86 Israelis were released. Seventeen Thai men also were let go. That left 119 men — many of them injured or elderly — and 17 women and children as hostages in Gaza.

In a private meeting on December 5, Israeli media reported, the families of the remaining captives ripped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for agreeing to prioritize women and children — then resuming Israel’s bombardment of Gaza with no known plans to negotiate the release of anyone else.

“You think the men are strong? It’s too hard for them. Bring them all home,” Sharon Cunio, whose husband, David, and other family members are still hostages, told Netanyahu and Israel’s war cabinet, according to local media.


“Children first” seems to be a widely agreed-upon crisis action plan, whether it’s a rescue from a natural disaster or a hostage-taking. And women and children generally pay an outsized price in crises: The death toll from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza tops 18,700 — around two-thirds of them women and children.

But other standards, such as women before men, can lead to fraught judgments about whose lives are most valuable — and reflect the human impulse to sort each other.

Experts say the choice nowadays often is to save the most vulnerable first, which would include children but also older people and those who are sick and the injured, no matter their gender. When everyone can’t be rescued at once, the critical factors seem to be the exercise of leadership and all players making a choice — typically between themselves and others.

Other dynamics weigh heavily, such as how much time people have before a ship sinks as well as the societal and cultural norms of the people involved.

“What is considered ‘valuable’ is determined by the actors controlling the situation,” says Edward Galea, a professor at the University of Greenwich who specializes in evacuation and human behavior. In a fire or other disaster, it’s those directly involved — say, a ship captain or passengers. In a hostage situation, he says, “it’s external actors” — in the case of the Gaza war, it’s intense politics and a watching world.

“For example, it could be considered valuable to be seen to attempt to release the most vulnerable first or to release women and children first or to be gender and age neutral,” Galea said in an email. There’s no law or regulation that says women and children must be saved first; rather, he’s said, it’s a tradition ingrained by Hollywood.

In real time, human behavior in catastrophes often plays out more like every person for themselves, according to experts who have studied the dynamics. There’s often no time to consider who belongs to which group, or to fight over terms as in a wartime hostage release. Leadership is key; someone has to go first.

In Italy in 2012, that someone was Francesco Schettino, the captain of the luxury liner Costa Concordia who slammed it into a reef, capsizing off the Tuscan island of Giglio. Thirty-two people died. Schettino is serving a 16-year prison sentence for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning a ship before all the passengers and crew had evacuated.

On the Israel-Hamas prisoners-for-hostages deal, the negotiators agreed that mothers and children should not be separated. Hamas, which broke hostage-taking norms by abducting women and children, was more open to their release because they were getting in the way. Not all women were released, however: Some are in the army, and some have died.

After Israel resumed its bombing of Gaza on Dec. 1, Netanyahu reportedly told the families of the male hostages that Hamas was now making demands that even they, the relatives of those still missing, would not have accepted in exchange for their loved ones.


The women-and-children ethos is widely attributed to the 1852 sinking of the HMS Birkenhead a few miles off the coast of South Africa. In the wee hours of Feb. 25, with about 638 people aboard, the steam paddler hit a rock off Danger Point. Water flooded the forward hull and the equipment used to lower most of the lifeboats malfunctioned, according to accounts at the time.

British Lt. Colonel Alexander Seton, 38, is widely credited with understanding as the ship sank that fleeing men would swamp the few functioning lifeboats, which were filled with women and children.

He gave the order to his crew: “I implore you not to do this thing and I ask you all to stand fast.” They did, according to multiple survivor accounts. Britain’s National Army Museum says the 193 survivors included all 26 women and children aboard.

Thus was born what became known as “the Birkenhead drill,” whereby women and children were saved first in shipwrecks. “To stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1896.

The drill would become most closely associated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, killing at least 1,500 of the more than 2,200 people aboard. Accounts differ, but testimony from the inquiries afterward indicates that someone or someones — from Captain Edward Smith to various passengers — prioritized putting women and children into the lifeboats, of which there were not enough to evacuate everyone aboard.

In the end, 70% of the women and children were saved compared to only 20% of the men, according to a 2012 study by two economists at Uppsala University in Sweden. The 1997 movie “Titanic” immortalized the order when actor Leonardo DiCaprio says the words “women and children first” during a key scene.

That’s not how evacuations and rescues tend to play out in real life, according to one of the authors of the 2012 study, which looked at 18 maritime disasters over three centuries. The Titanic was the exception, according to Mikael Elinder, because leadership had an effect on the behavior of the crew.

“We don’t see this in most shipwrecks, just chaos,” Elinder said. “When there is a threat to loss of life, one tries to save oneself.”

In most shipwrecks, the study found, women have a survival disadvantage compared with men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. And it turned out that some survivors later spoke of men trying to save themselves.

And there were other distinctions made, according to Lucy Delap of Cambridge University, a historian of feminism in the United States and Britain.

“It turned out that not all women were equally deserving of protection at sea,” she wrote in 2012. “Lower-class women — wives of sailors or soldiers, or poor emigrant women — were frequently excluded from the rule, and women of color were equally marginalized.”

Laurie Kellman

Associated Press

LONDON, England

Ariel Schalit (AP), Giuseppe Modesti (AP), Fatima Shbair (AP), Israel Defense Forces and Israel Prime Minister Office (via AP)