Three disasters solidified the principle of women and children first in Britain and America. When the HMS Birkenhead went down in 1852, the soldiers reportedly stood at attention while the women and children were loaded into life boats. The overwhelming majority of the men died in an act that contemporary writers called “a piece of pure and exalted manhood.” Two years later, there was a mad scramble on the decks of the American ship SS Arctic as it foundered near Newfoundland. The press branded the male survivors cowards for failing to save even a single woman or child. American morality was redeemed in 1857, when the crew and male passengers of the SS Central America loaded women and children onto lifeboats at the expense of their own lives. Media reports glorified the gold-rush men who sacrificed their new wealth and their lives in a final act of chivalry. The image of captain William Lewis Herndon calmly smoking a cigar as he went down with his ship became a symbol of American seagoing bravery.
--Brian Palmer, Slate, on the origins of sea disaster chivalry