While the phrase “women and children first” had been coined before the tragedy on Titanic, it is famously associated with the fateful night of April 15, 1912 when Titanic struck an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Throughout the 2 hours and 40 minutes that it took Titanic to succumb to its fatal wounds, the passengers and crew of the Ship were faced with a horrible predicament: how do you get 2,228 people off a sinking ship with only enough capacity in the lifeboats to fit 1,178 people? Around 12:05 a.m., 25 minutes after Titanic struck the iceberg; Captain Smith made the order to uncover the lifeboats. Pursuant to existing general maritime rules, coupled with the chivalry of the day, the order of “women and children first” was given. However, their fate could also be determined by what side of the Ship passengers attempted to get in a lifeboat.

First Officer Murdoch, who was in charge of launching the lifeboats on the starboard side, took the order to mean women and children first. After loading the lifeboat with all women and children in his vicinity, he would then allow men to fill the remaining spots in the boat. However, Second Officer Lightoller, who was in charge of launching the lifeboats on the port side, took the order literally, and would not allow any men in the lifeboats regardless of any vacancies available. By the time Titanic eventually sank at 2:20 a.m., all of the lifeboats had launched, and there were still some 1,500 people on board the doomed ship. Of the 2,228 passengers and crew, 531 were either women or children and they made up a staggering proportion of the 706 saved passengers demonstrating the effect of the order “women and children first.”