Horayot, Chapter Three, Mishnah Seven
In the previous mishnah we learned which sacrifice takes precedence in cases where two need to be offered. In addition, we learned some general principles of which things take precedence over others in halakhah. Our mishnah contains another such principle.
A man takes precedence over a woman in matters concerning the saving of life and the restoration of lost property, and a woman takes precedence over a man in respect of clothing and ransom from captivity.
When both are exposed to degradation in their captivity the man takes precedence over the woman.
Our mishnah is clearly chauvinistic, and we should acknowledge it as such. As I have stated before when such types of mishnayoth have appeared, while I can understand the mishnah as reflecting common societal values in the ancient world, I cannot internalize the mishnah as reflecting my own values. Nor do I believe that any Jew reading this mishnah should do so.
The mishnah states that if one has the opportunity to save the life of a man or a woman, but only one of them, the man takes precedence. Similarly, if one has the opportunity to restore lost property to either a man or a woman, he should return that which belongs to the man. For instance if he finds two lost horses, one that he knows belongs to Jacob and one to Rachel, but can only return one, he should return that which belongs to Jacob.
However, when it comes to issues of potential degradation, the womans modesty comes first. If one has only enough money to help buy clothing for a man or woman, the woman takes precedence. This is because it is more embarrassing for a woman to be poorly clothed than for a man. Similarly, if one has only enough money to redeem one captive, one should redeem the woman, lest she be raped during captivity. Men are not usually raped during captivity. We know that this is the reason that women are redeemed first, because the end of the mishnah states that if there is concern that the man might be raped, he is to be redeemed first. According to the mishnah, it is worse for the man to be raped than for the woman.