Although never part of international maritime law, the phrase was popularised by its usage on the RMS Titanic, where, as a consequence of this practice, 74% of the women on board were saved and 52% of the children, but only 20% of the men. Some officers on the Titanic misinterpreted the order from Captain Smith, and tried to prevent men from boarding the lifeboats. It was intended that women and children would board first, with any remaining free spaces for men. Because so few men were saved on the Titanic, the men who did survive were initially branded as cowards, including White Star official, J. Bruce Ismay.
There is no legal basis for the protocol of women and children first — according to International Maritime Organization regulations, ships have 30 minutes to load all passengers into lifeboats and maneuver the boats away. History has furthermore shown that application of the protocol has been the exception rather than the rule. An Uppsala University study published in April 2012, found that historical survival rates have been in favor of adult males rather than women or children. The paper analyzed 18 maritime disasters covering a period of one and a half centuries, from 1852 to 2011. The same study found that crew members have a relative survival advantage over passengers. The particular case of RMS Titanic is therefore not representative of maritime conduct in general.