Should Women Be Required to Register for the Draft?

They can serve with valor in combat roles, but feminists have clashed on the issue.

women draft.
Lt. Ferrau from the Task Forces 1-30 North Carolina walks in front of a U.S. Helicopter, close to the Iraqi border on Dec. 20, 1998.

Raed Qutena/Getty Images

Women should be required to register for the draft along with men, top-ranking military representatives said on Tuesday. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Army chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley and Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert Neller testified that since the Department of Defense struck down all military restrictions based on gender in January, and women are now serving in combat roles, there’s no reason to exclude them from Selective Service requirements.

Current Selective Service law requires all “male persons” to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. The U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force since the ’70s, but the draft still includes all men up to age 25 as “a very, very, very inexpensive insurance policy,” Selective Service System Director Larry Romo told KPCC in October.

When Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in December 2015 that the department would end all gender-based exclusions, the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees gave Congress  30 days to consider the decision’s impact on Selective Service law. It renewed a debate that began in January 2013, when then–Defense Secretary Leon Panetta broadcast his plan to end the military’s ban on women in combat roles, a recommendation made unanimously by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Back then, some argued that lifting of the ban might legally force Congress to either include women in the draft or scrap it altogether for good. In fact, some activists, like Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, opposed lifting the combat-roles ban precisely because it could affect civilian women, who’d be forced to sign up for the draft.

In the ’70s and ’80s, though polls indicated that more than 70 percent of the country supported the Equal Rights Amendment, some people opposed it because they believed it would require women to serve in the same military roles as men, including combat units, and to register for the draft. Feminists were divided on the issue—though the vast majority agreed that women were physically able to serve in any military capacity, pacifist feminists could not support the expansion of an institution they believed was fundamentally destructive and immoral. “The dilemma for many feminists became trying to deny that the intention of the ERA would be diluted by gender considerations in military service, while not recommending the extension of conscription for another segment of the population,” wrote Swarthmore College Peace Collection curator Wendy Chmielewski in 1989.

The U.S. has only seriously considered drafting women once in its history: during a military-nurse shortage in World War II. In response, a group of activists formed the Women’s Committee to Oppose Conscription. “Objection to the conscription of women … ought not to proceed from the assumption that chivalry requires the shielding of women from hardship,” WCOC chairwoman Georgia Harkness wrote at the time. “There is no reason for objecting to it either on the basis of special privilege of sex or of the exemption of anybody from the hard requirements of our time.” Instead, the group opposed women’s inclusion in the draft because it would roll back the independence won by first-wave feminists. “Women have fought for years for the right to be free from the domination of men—the right to be educated, to vote, to marry or not to marry as they want, to work,” wrote WCOC director Mildred Scott Olmsted. “The army gives [women] … opportunity to do only minor jobs. They would have no real influence in the army, and no freedom, and they know it.”

Still, Olmsted’s argument rested on a traditional view of women’s roles in society: “Women are naturally and rightly the homemakers, producers, and conservers of life. … They play their part during the war by ‘keeping the home fires burning until the boys come home’ by carrying on the services that hold the community together.”

In 1980, when President Carter requested that Congress reinstate the draft, he also recommended it allow the president to evaluate the military’s needs upon possible future conscription and make a decision then about whether and how to include women in the draft. Congress did restore Selective Service registration but did not add any provisions for the inclusion of women, chiefly because the Department of Defense did not allow women to serve in combat roles. Members of Congress also argued that there was no pressing need to widen the draft pool by adding women and that it might harm existing social structures. The National Organization for Women issued a statement opposing the draft, but stipulating that if a draft must exist, it should include women.

Around the same time, a group of men filed a lawsuit claiming that the exclusion of women from the draft violated their Fifth Amendment right to due process. A 6–3 Supreme Court decision denied their claim in 1981 in Rostker v. Goldberg, once again because of the Department of Defense’s ban on women serving in combat roles. “The existence of the combat restrictions clearly indicates the basis for Congress’ decision to exempt women from registration,” Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion. “The purpose of registration was to prepare for a draft of combat troops. Since women are excluded from combat, Congress concluded that they would not be needed in the event of a draft, and therefore decided not to register them.” Justice Thurgood Marshall issued a compelling dissent, writing that the draft’s gender-based exclusion “places its imprimatur on one of the most potent remaining public expressions of ‘ancient canards about the proper role of women.’ ”

Throughout the entire modern history of the military draft, each time its exclusion of women has been questioned, government committees have fallen back on Rostker and the Department of Defense’s ban on women in combat. That ban is no longer. Women compose 15 percent of active troops and 23 percent of new military officers; they’ve graduated from Army Ranger School and will soon become Navy SEALs. When the military officially began to open all combat jobs to women in December 2015, the Bloomberg editorial board argued that women have no more reason not to register for the draft. “The Selective Service requirement remains essential to keeping the U.S. prepared for the unthinkable,” the board wrote. “Should a larger military be required, it’s important to have a registry of all potentially eligible participants.”

Though Congress is highly unlikely to ever resume active conscription, the purpose of a nationwide Selective Service registry is to enforce an equal distribution of the burden of war. Since the Vietnam War, when the wealthy and powerful easily avoided the draft, most easy-to-access deferments have been scrapped. If the draft is to have its desired effect—forcing decision-makers in the federal government to personally grapple with the severity of sending combat troops overseas and lessening the disproportionate consequences of war borne by poor communities and communities of color—women must be implicated by its reach. Military officials can debate how and where drafted women will serve according to their merits when and if the unthinkable comes to pass. For now, it’s up to Congress to align one of our country’s last remaining discriminatory laws with today’s military reality.