“At least 19 victims, mostly men and children, were taken for treatment to the hospital in Kandahar.” “The Israeli missile…took the lives of at least 14 other people—including three men and nine children.” “Tens of thousands, including men, children and the elderly, were victims of chemical weapons attacks.”
These quotes from recent news articles may read a bit strangely, but they’re all accurate (from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Los Angeles Times, respectively), with only one change: Each story documented the number of female victims, not male. The gender swap clarifies one writer’s point: “It’s bad enough that innocent people died, but they were among society’s most vulnerable.”
Children, certainly. Old people, probably (though I’d give Charlton Heston the edge in a celebrity deathmatch with Saddam Hussein). But women?
The most famous historical example of women and children as deserving of special protection from disaster is the Titanic, which, as anyone who hasn’t had a Leonardo DiCaprio–specific lobotomy in the past five years knows, didn’t have enough lifeboats to accommodate all of its passengers. (Despite the famous imperative, more men sailing first class survived than did children in third class.)
The protocol, however, was established 60 years earlier in 1852, when the British ship H.M.S. Birkenhead hit a rock outcropping off the coast of South Africa. There wasn’t time to save everyone aboard, so the commanding officer uttered, for the first time on record, the phrase “women and children first.” (The policy prompted Rudyard Kipling to write a stanza about this particularly bitter form of male sacrifice that included the line: “But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew.”)
The idea that women and children should never be sacrificed to war has been around even longer. In their 1836 siege of the Alamo, Santa Anna’s troops spared almost 20 people, mostly women and children. During World War II’s London Blitz, more than a million women and children (and a third group of weaklings, hospital patients) were evacuated. More recently, during the wars in the Balkans, a few Bosnian women were allowed to accompany their children in convoys leaving Sarajevo, while the men stayed to fight. And when federal agents laid siege to David Koresh’s Branch Davidian camp in Waco, Texas, in 1993, they negotiated two women out of the compound, along with several children, before fire killed everyone inside.
Perhaps in the days when only men could serve as soldiers, the women-and-children-first directive made more sense; as noncombatants, their role was to be protected, not do the protecting. Now that women enlist in the military by the thousands—true, the U.S. armed forces still forbid us from participating in ground combat, but in the last decade we’ve earned the dubious privilege of becoming fighter pilots—the image of women as downy, delicate arbiters of nonaggression has been permanently altered.
When it comes to depicting the horrors of war, the media seems strangely unable to describe an equal-opportunity peril in equitable terms. Just as the Titanic’s captain ordered that women and children be first to the lifeboats, his latter-day counterparts express a kind of anachronistic gallantry by being especially appalled when women turn up among the drowned.
The way women are held linguistically apart from the actual participants in these events carries with it several layers of meaning. When victims are all male, their gender is assumed (“people” are men, of course, while women must be specified). Men, even if they’re dovelike citizens who think a grenade is something you add to a Shirley Temple, are somehow implicated among the perpetrators by virtue of their sex. When women die, it’s an affront to the natural order of things, and thus noted. (The assumption of women’s vulnerability and men’s culpability is particularly misplaced in news from the Middle East, where women have long served in the Israeli army, and where the last year has brought female suicide bombers to the public’s attention.)
The automatic pairing of “women” with “children” in reportage adds yet another dimension: In addition to the implication that women are as helpless and innocent as tots, the protection of women from war, terrorism, and other calamities is rendered crucial not because of the preciousness of women themselves, but because it is they who raise the next generation. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in its 1974 Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, is unequivocal in stating that it is “conscious of its responsibility for the destiny of the rising generation and for the destiny of mothers, who play an important role in society, in the family and particularly in the upbringing of children.”
“It’s the idea that men are protectors of society and women are protectors of family,” says Ana Maria Garcia, a sociologist and anthropologist and the director of the women’s studies program at Arcadia University in Philadelphia. This assumption ripples across society in a variety of ways, from the assignment of reduced prison terms for female felons (so they can get home to the kids quicker) to the infamous “mommy track” of career advancement. “The logic is, someone has to raise the children, and it can’t possibly be men,” Garcia adds.
This was reflected most recently in the press’s coverage of September 11 and its aftermath. The New York Times, for example, followed a year in the life of one Marian Fontana, whose firefighter husband, Dave, died in the World Trade Center. In several articles, the newspaper chronicled her struggle to adjust to life as a widow and to raise their young son, Aidan. On the one-year anniversary of the attacks, the New Yorker included personal essays from three widows, including Fontana. “There was all this anniversary [coverage] about how the families were doing, but I didn’t see one feature about [the family of] a woman who died,” says Garcia. “Of course there were women who died, but for some reason we showcase the women who are left, not the men.”
The singling out of women and children in war reporting and accounts of terrorist attacks obscures the matter of the thousands of men who, voluntarily or not, die violently, needlessly, and helplessly. If the accounts we read declare, explicitly or not, that it’s acceptable for men to die for their country, their families, or their beliefs, then we are less inclined to question why they had to die in the first place.
Just as the soldiers who accept the possibility of dying to protect their cause or country can be women as well as men, the innocent victims of those battles should not inspire more or less outrage because of their sex.
Highlighting the number of women in death tolls disrespects them by implying they are somehow separate from the events that killed them, just as not acknowledging the men who died dehumanizes them as inevitable casualties of war. And giving a human face to tragedy means acknowledging every human whose life that tragedy changes.