Women in the Draft: A New Frontier For Gender Equality

By Grace Masback ’17 and Beatrice Endler ’17

Go to the Selective Service System Website, go to “Registration,” and click “Registration Form” on the left sidebar. The first question on the form asks about “Sex,” and next to the “Female” option there is a note that says “current law does not permit females to register.” Selecting “Female” on the form immediately leads to another page, and doesn’t allow the user to finish filling out the rest of the form. The new page, entitled “Women and the Draft,” explains the current draft registration law: “Selective Service law as it’s written now refers specifically to “male persons” in stating who must register and who would be drafted. For women to be required to register with Selective Service, Congress would have to amend the law.”

All women who have served in the military have done so voluntarily, and as the Selective Service System notes, “women have never been subject to Selective Service registration or a military draft in America.” Men, however, have been subject to military conscription since the Civil War. In 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, requiring men from ages twenty-one through thirty to register to serve in WWI. In 1920, the National Defense Act was passed, creating “a system of voluntary recruitment.” In 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords, U.S. military terminated its involvement in the Vietnam War, and the U.S. draft was put on “standby status.” 

In 1980, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Carter resuscitated the draft. According to the Selective Service System website, Carter suggested that Congress should not only reactivate “registration for men,” but he also suggested that the Selective Service Act be amended such that it would “provide presidential authority to register, classify, and examine women for service in the Armed Forces.” The Department of Defense (DoD) decided that women would continue to not be assigned to positions in “close combat,” and Congress, while upholding Carter’s request for draft reactivation, “declined to amend the act to permit the registration of women.” Currently, the U.S. armed forces is volunteer-based, but “all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 26 are required to register for the draft.”

A "Women in Military Service" US Postage stamp. (Photo: Jordi Miralles/ Flickr)

A “Women in Military Service” US Postage stamp. (Photo: Jordi Miralles/ Flickr)

In 1980, a lower level court case declaring the draft’s gender-based discrimination to be unconstitutional made its way to the Supreme Court in the 1981 Rostker v. Goldberg. “The Supreme Court reversed the District Court decision and upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion.” In 1992, the debate reemerged in a “Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces,” but the commission voted down the conscription of women. In 1994, the DoD stayed firm on its decision to exclude women from the draft, however, it also recognized that “the success of the military will increasingly depend upon the participation of women.” President Clinton revisited the issue as well. According to a Washington Post article from 2012, “the Clinton administration removed restrictions on more than a quarter-million troop slots” in 1994, allowing women to be assigned to “combat roles other than ground combat,” as “direct ground combat” roles were still restricted.   

The push for female equality in the military continued in 2013, when Outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta lifted the ban on the ability for female service members to serve in combat roles. Given the impressive progress some began raising questions about whether or not women would be required to register for the draft but little action was taken.

This 2013 announcement was followed in 2015 when Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Department of Defense would lift all gender-based restrictions on military service starting January 2016. Following his announcement, Armed Services Committee Chairmen, Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry and Arizona Senator John McCain, issued a joint statement, stating, “Congress has a 30-day period to review the implications of today’s decision. … and receiving the Department’s views on any changes to the Selective Service Act that may be required as a result of this decision.”

As January 2016 approached, and equality for women serving in the military was eventually granted, the debate over allowing women to register for the draft began in earnest. The House Armed Services Committee took an unexpected step toward requiring women to register for the draft when a bipartisan coalition got behind a defense funding bill that included an amendment requiring women to register.  

A version of the bill worked its way through initial committee sessions in both the House and the Senate. Although the language about draft expansion has since been removed from the bill in congress, it still remains in the senate where it has garnered strong bipartisan support including the support of Senate majority leader Mitch Mcconnell.  For the amendment to get through, both houses of Congress have to agree on an identical bill, which President Obama might veto based on a separate fight about funding.

Despite the increasing visibility of the discussion of women in the draft in politics, the two sides of the conversation remain firm on their positions. On the one hand are the supporters of women in the draft, including groups such as feminist organizations and former military. The opposition consists largely of conservative politicians.

Advocates for women to be involved in the draft support the concept because they wholeheartedly believe in gender equality. Although many feminist organizations do not support or agree with the concept of the draft more generally, they feel that if a draft does exist it makes sense to require both men and women to register. Others, including former military members, believe that both males and females should register for the draft on the principle that all young people in the United States should serve their country in some way, not necessarily in the military, but by providing some sort of service.

In 1980, the National Organization of women (NOW), announced “opposition to the draft, but states that if there is a draft, NOW supports the inclusion of women on the same basis as men.” Neither feminist organization may agree with the concept of the draft, but they feel that if males are required to register, females should be as well.

In a survey of 125 twelve to twenty-three year olds, 52 percent of those surveyed responded “yes” when asked if women should be required to register for the draft. Support for the draft in general was low, as 42.7 percent expressed opposition to the draft. It is important to note that nearly 70 percent of those surveyed were female. When asked for additional comments, many of those in support of women in the draft responded that if the draft is “going to exist it should include everyone,” at least all able-bodied persons.

Three former military members expressed support for equality of the draft with similar justification. Michael J. Stephens served in the U.S. Army and also as a Department of Defense civilian for seventeen years, starting in 1994 until his retirement in 2011. Ellen Matz, now retired, spent thirty years in the Air Force, and Patricia Murphy, who began as a Second Lieutenant and retired as a full colonel, is now the president of the Air Force Women’s Officer’s Association (AFWOA), which is “a social group of women who served in the Air Force.”

Stephens has served alongside women, and he provides the male perspective on conscription for women: “My thoughts on women in the draft and in combat roles are very strong. I have worked with many very good women both officers and enlisted, who…would have wanted to serve in combat and other highly dangerous rolls protecting the US and our interests.” Matz “started back when the only true volunteers in the military were women.” As a female formerly in the military, her perspective is also important. Matz explained, “I do support the draft for women…Why should only men be expected to sacrifice for our freedoms?” Murphy similarly stated that “As long as there is a draft registration, then there is no reason that women should be exempt from that, why would they be? Of course there are restrictions, or there were, of which positions women can have in the military, but there are fewer restrictions now.”

The second most common comment from the survey revolved around the idea that women should serve the country in some way, but not necessarily in combat: “women should be required to perform some sort of mandatory governmental service.” Another respondent also shared support for a “broad based national service program…the concept of mandatory conscription…could be modified to have a general service component. In the interests of both efficiency, promoting national security and strength, and gender equality…women as well as men should be required to register for the draft, a system of mandatory conscription, or some other mandatory national service program.”

In agreement with these ideas, Murphy commented that “before we get into having a draft registration, we ought to have a universal service approach in our society, where every youngster, between eighteen and twenty-eight, they’re going to do a year or two doing public service.” This isn’t necessarily combat, but young men and women could take part in “Teach for America, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps.”

Of the persons surveyed, 28.8 percent expressed opposition to women in the draft. One argument acknowledged that “it is sexist for only men to be enlisted in the draft,” but the respondent noted that “part of me is okay with it because I never want to be forced into that, however I know many men feel the same way.” The other argument focused on the concern that “women are physically weaker” than men.

This reasoning, that women should be excluded from the draft because they cannot meet the physical standards of the military, is met with responses that usually fall into one of these categories: service in the armed forces consists of more than just positions in combat, there are exemptions for pregnant women and mothers, and women that are physically capable of performing a certain role should fill that position.

Murphy, referencing the first type of response, explained, “not all military positions involve combat. I was in Vietnam as a women officer. I was not in a combat position, I was in personnel, but I was in a combat zone. The rules are changing. Right now the Department of Defense is reviewing all women’s positions to see which ones should be reopened or opened, finally, to women. They are keeping less and less closed.”

To address the opposition to an equal draft on the grounds of protecting mothers and pregnant women, Murphy would say: “Well they’re exempt, they wouldn’t be on the list. The military has lots of women in it now, and it deals very successfully with women, both women who are single and married and women with children, we we have handled those issues.”

Additionally, Murphy believes that “equality means that you do your part…If you want equality, it means that we are willing to serve just as the guys do.” She thinks “that women are equal to any challenge that men are…and that men and women are eligible to do the same thing, with restrictions as to strength and childbearing.” Similarly, Stephens agrees that if a woman is able to do a job, she should be assigned that role: “I do support U.S. women being included in the national draft and… assigned to combat roles given their ability to pass the same rigorous training goals as their male counterparts.”

Matz also noted that “as our technology advances, there are many fields where the physical differences between men and women make no difference. As far as combat jobs, if a woman is physically and mentally capable of doing the job, she should do it…Military jobs should all have a physical and mental standard defined for those jobs and those who can meet the standards should be doing the jobs.”

The Selective Service System remains largely neutral in the debate. When reached for comment, Jennifer Burke, a selective services Public Affairs Specialist and Disability Program Manager, could say little, placing the responsibility for the decision on the legislative process. “Because Selective Service has no comments on the debate surrounding women and Selective Service, your best source of information would be contact your federal representative for more information,” Burke said. She continued, “Selective Service is not part of the legislative process. We only follow the guidance of the current Administration and the Military Selective Service System.”

The majority of feminist and other women’s advocacy groups support the draft. Conservative lawmakers like representative Hunter, however, have argued that drafting women would limit unit cohesion for existing male service members and expose physically weaker women to restrictive amounts of strain and danger for abuse and rape.

Former Republican presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz came out strongly against women in the draft after his opponents Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush expressed that they would support the idea. He told CNN, “We have had enough with political correctness — especially in the military,” Cruz said to loud applause in the town building. “Political correctness is dangerous, and the idea that we would draft our daughters, to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close contact — I think is wrong, it is immoral, and if I am president, we ain’t doing it.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has expressed feeling conflicted about the issue but ultimately alluded to the fact that he would support measures to require females to register for the selective services. When asked about his stance he told CNN, “The answer is yes because they’re really into it.” He continued, “And some of them are really, really good at it.”

The debate going forward is likely to be long, politically charged, and nuanced. It will likely take years before any consensus is reached. The election of a new president come November has the potential to to accelerate, or by contrast greatly neglect, the debate.

Putting the debate itself aside, however, for those morally opposed that the draft require women to register, there may be an alternative.

“I always believed that all members of American society should be obligated to serve the nation in some fashion, not necessarily the military,” says Matz. She continues, “As far as those who are not able bodied enough to serve in the military and genuine conscientious objectors could serve the nation in other ways through civil programs. I believe the price of our freedom is service to the nation, one way or another.”

Stephens expressed a similar point. “There are a few countries including Israel that do draft their women into military services, and others still, close allies that include them in combat roles during wartime, and some countries draft women into other required services following their school years.”

Adopting a system in which all Americans are required to serve their country in some way but not necessarily required to serve in combat roles may represent an important step in bridging the gap between those opposed and those in support of the draft.