09/23/2013 08:46 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Women and Children First

Lately I've been hearing serious conversations, speeches, and commentary using the phrase "women and children" to sway people's hearts and minds as a reason to involve our country in war.

I think everyone is unified in the horror felt upon learning that Syrian civilians have been killed by their own government with chemical weapons. But regardless of where you stand politically, the phrase "women and children" should be taken out of the argument.

I can understand the children part of the phrase. Killing our young is taboo and saving them is valued. That seems like a good idea to me: not only are we insuring survival on an animalistic level but also we are choosing to be a civilized society which protects its innocent and weaker members - those who are less able to, and some might argue, should not yet have to, fend for themselves.

But why do we lump women into this group? Surely in the 21st century, people aren't actually arguing that women should be treated like children.

And why do we exclude men? Are people insinuating that it's not as bad for men to be killed? Less offensive? Less disturbing?

Ask the average person, and she or he will probably tell you that the separating out of "women and children" is deeply ingrained in our history. But, in actuality, according to the Wikipedia entry for the term, paraphrased below, it was introduced fairly recently -- the phrase appearing a mere 150 some years ago in the novel, Harrington: A Story of True Love. The first time it was practiced in real life was at roughly the same time on a Royal Navy ship, the Birkenhead. The ship carried 20 women and children who were family members of some of the sailors (this code of conduct is sometimes referred to as the Birkenhead Drill).

The order to evacuate "women and children first" from a sinking ship is most associated with the Titanic, but the phrase has no basis in maritime law. In fact, the practice is the exception rather than the rule. The Uppsala University study of the most notable maritime disasters in the 150 years since the expression was coined shows that men have a far greater survival rate in shipwrecks then women. This study concluded that typical behavior for people is to save themselves first. A 2012 New York Times headline summed it up succinctly, "In Crisis at Sea, Chivalry Dies First."

So, in reality, this whole women and children thing is a myth. According to Dr. Lucy Delap, a historian at the University of Cambridge, the idea was promulgated by the British anti-suffrage movement. They made the argument that if men were willing to sacrifice themselves for women, women didn't need the right to vote.

I am aware that men do often defer to women in common day-to-day niceties. Men wait for women to exit elevators first; they hold the door for women. The boys in my son's kindergarten class had to wait for their girl counterparts to go to recess before they were allowed to run outside. "Ladies first!" the teacher drilled into them each day.

While I think politeness should be taught to all children and continued into adulthood, wouldn't it be just as polite if the first person to reach the door, male or female, opened it for those coming behind? Should children line up for recess based on some other fluke of conception that they cannot control? By height, or birth date, or maybe skin color? Why can't 5 year olds just line up at the door and then go out to recess without being divided first into gender categories?

Now I understand some of these practices are important to people -- some might even say sacred. But if the doctrine of "women and children first" is so sacrosanct, why limit it to just etiquette and moments of disaster? Why not incorporate it into the rest of our society? Imagine this philosophy playing out in significant real world scenarios:

--The business landscape would undergo a seismic shift as men deferred promotions to their female counterparts - ladies first.

--Elections would invariably swing toward the female candidates, as the male rivals would simply shrug their shoulders and admit that voters are bound by the laws of chivalry to vote for the women on the ballot.

--And surely if the safety and welfare of children were the priority, there would be no arguments over funding education. There would be no child support battles. Children would not go hungry.

But these musings are just that. The phrase "women and children" is being used to manipulate people, and it's offensive to me and insulting to males. Let me be clear. I am a woman and I have children: a little girl and a little boy. When they each become 18, does my girl become more valuable in the event of a life-threatening emergency? Is my life more valuable than their father's?

It's time to retire this patronizing, rarely put into practice, offensive phrase, and value all people's lives, regardless of gender, equally.