Excellent article on the subject.
In the case of “women and children first,” however, the arrangement was not created because men were seen as less valuable. Instead, it reflects the fact that women’s legal status at the time was the same as a child’s. Women, like children, were seen as legally incompetent and incapable of caring for themselves. During the 19th century and stretching into the 20th, upper and middle class white women in the U.S. and UK were expected to conform to what is now called “the cult of domesticity” – under its strictures, women were expected to be pious, pure, submissive, and confined to the domestic sphere. Women had no legal rights of their own upon marriage, and passed from the control of their fathers to the control of their husbands. Being placed on a lifeboat first would not have been an indication of privilege, but of being seen as physically and mentally incapable of self-preservation.
It continually amazes me how readily we can pretend a disadvantage is an advantage.