In fact, “women and children first” can be dated very precisely. On Feb. 26, 1852, HMS Birkenhead was wrecked off the coast of Cape Town while transporting British troops to South Africa. There were, as on the Titanic, insufficient lifeboats. The women and children were escorted to the ship’s cutter. The men mustered on deck. They were ordered not to dive in the water lest they risk endangering the ladies and their young charges by swamping the boats. So they stood stiffly at their posts as the ship disappeared beneath the waves. As Kipling wrote:
We’re most of us liars, we’re ’arf of us thieves, an’ the rest of us rank as can be, But once in a while we can finish in style (which I ’ope it won’t ’appen to me).