Comment: ‘Women and children, first’ becomes a prayer for all

The urge to save women and kids, while expecting men to stay and fight — and die — ignores the reality of the situation.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

In a time of gut-wrenching disaster or calamity, the order rings out like a mantra: women and children first. For more than three weeks, as Ukraine has been assaulted by Russia’s military, women and children have been allowed to make their way across the treacherous terrain to the border where they can hopefully flee the deadly mayhem. Some 3 million people have left the country, according to the United Nations. But Ukraine’s adult male citizens, the ones considered in their prime, have not been allowed to leave.

This hierarchy in evacuation is a quaint notion in the midst of this turmoil: Delicate women will be ushered to safety while brave and brawny men will stay behind to defend the home front. The image calls to mind a kind of condescending chivalry that is both arcane and misguided. But mostly, it’s a heartbreaking lament. It suggests a false notion that some order still prevails in the midst of Russia’s unprovoked attack.

The reality is that multitudes have been unable to escape this war. Women and children have been killed in the carnage along with men. The United Nations counts 636 civilian deaths as of March 13. In Mariupol, a maternity hospital was bombed and the images of pregnant women evacuating — injured and dying — have been some of the most ghastly of this war, not because their bodies were bloodier than others, not because they were more physically destroyed, but because those pictures were a reminder of just how complete the attackers’ disregard for humanity truly was. The invaders were willing to kill those who were trying to usher new life into the world.

But even beyond the horrors at the Mariupol maternity hospital, there have been homes, offices and businesses destroyed, food and water have become impossible to find and the city now looks like little more than historic ruins. There’s no order there. There are no roles for men and different ones for women. The only job at hand for those who remain is to survive.

Who wouldn’t want to flee if they could? There are those brave Ukrainians who have chosen to stay and to fight. But whether they are men or women who manage to leave, no one should feel that they have succumbed to any weakness other than simply being human.

There’s a heart-wrenching sadness to this familiar command which places women alongside children in times of peril and pushes men off in the distance, as if they are a separate and expendable branch on the family tree. It puts space between men and their offspring at precisely the time when it would seem that they’d want to keep them close. It demands that men sublimate any ferocious instinct to protect their child and instead turn their attention to battle for country and creed. It’s an order that magnifies the man-as-warrior trope which is a part of the devastating psychology of violence that fuels so many altercations from street corner brawls to front-line combat. Men fight; women nurture. Men defend; women are protected; or at least some of them are. There have been reports of racism at the Ukrainian border. There is always energy and space for racism, it seems.

The pictures from Ukraine of children saying goodbye to their fathers, of wives, partners and mothers lamenting having to leave the men in their lives behind, they’re all devastating. These men, between ages 18 and 65, have been yoked to the stereotypes of manhood: tough, stoic, brutish. And the women, no matter their age, have been harnessed to their own set of traits about a certain fragility that requires both protection and celebration. The gender distinction ignores the very real existence of women with a lion’s heart who are ready to take up arms against the Russian military. It ignores the women who have strode toward the danger with weapons, with medical know-how, with sheer determination. And it dismisses men with children who want nothing more than to hoist them onto their back and carry them to safety.

It takes away just a little bit of their humanity when that is really all that so many Ukrainians have left.

The words aim to maintain an order that’s crumbling. In a country where citizens are living in peace, they might be fighting words. That would be such a luxury, to joust over how the words are a declaration of inequality between men and women, a suggestion that women have been infantilized so that they can be ordered around and kept in their place. Such an intellectual indulgence it would be to parse how the words evoke a century-old vision of women and children as nearly the same when it comes to having agency.

In times of desperation, however, the phrase becomes a blessed exit strategy. It’s a golden ticket that brings one just a little closer to safety. It allows one space in the life boat as the Titanic slowly sinks or as the levee floods.

But in Ukraine, the populace has no luxuries and is beyond desperation. In Ukraine, where heading for the borders is an act of faith, civilians are targets of missiles and no act of state violence appears to be off limits or out of bounds, the words are more like a prayer that some semblance of order — if not restored — is at least recalled. They are a plea that what President Biden has called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “war of choice” becomes, at the barest minimum, a war of rules.

They are a petition to the Almighty that the better men will prevail in this war; Ukraine will endure; and life will begin anew.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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