Women And The Draft: How Equal Do We Want To Be?

Sarah Smiley Author, Dinner with the Smileys
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If the words “Selective Service” aren’t a call to arms for you, it might be because you are a woman – with no sons. For American young men and their parents, “Selective Service” means “the draft,” and, yes, boys still have to sign up for it.

But don’t worry, your daughters are safe — for now.

The active draft, which sent millions of men to serve in three wars, existed in various forms from 1940 until it ended in 1973. Then, in 1980, four years after women gained entrance to America’s service academies and during the height of the Cold War, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Selective Service registration for all male U.S. citizens, ages 18-25.

It was a “just in case” provision, a way to keep track of eligible men should the country ever face disaster. Every year since, boys have, for the most part, quietly signed up soon after they turned 18. They did this while women called for more equality and unlimited access to the military. They did it while the country debated a woman’s right to choose. They did it while the world around them became less about duty and more about entitlement.

True, the country has not yet re-activated a draft, leaving Selective Service to fade into near obscurity, while our all-volunteer military has fought three more wars. However, the consequences for men who don’t register are immediate and real: up to 5 years in prison, a fine of up $250,000, and ineligibility for government jobs or financial aid.

That’s right; your son can go to jail if he does not register for the Selective Service within 30 days of his 18th birthday.

But don’t worry; your daughters are still safe. They can choose to serve or not. Even if your son has a disability, he must register. But America’s healthiest daughters do not.

If this has you wondering what country you live in, you aren’t alone. President Ronald Reagan was opposed to Selective Service. During a presidential debate in 1979 he said that the law requiring registration, “rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state … That assumption isn’t a new one. The Nazis thought it was a great idea.”

But it’s not your “kids” who belong to the state; it’s just your boys. Even if you gave birth to a son who has transitioned to being a woman, she must register. If you gave birth to a daughter who is now a man, he does not.

It’s all very old fashioned and chivalrous. Even the Selective Service website reads like something out of the 1950s with statements like, “It’s What a Man’s Got to Do,” and FAQs including what to do if you only have one son to “carry on the family name.” But the issue of women is becoming increasingly difficult for even the website to maneuver. An entire section is devoted to dubious explanations of why women are excluded, with flimsy and out-dated reasons, including that they are barred from direct ground combat. Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta removed that barrier in 2013, instructing military service branches to implement the change by 2016.

Elsewhere on the Selective Service site, equality is explained this way: “By registering all eligible men, Selective Service ensures a fair and equitable draft, if ever required.”

But wait, aren’t women eligible now, too? They fought and won their place in the academies, in fighter jets, and soon in ground combat, too.

Some people argue that women shouldn’t be eligible because society needs them safe at home to procreate. Other people say not every woman wants to be in the military. Both of these arguments could be made for men as well. If we cherry-pick equality this way, is it truly equal?

Selfishly, none of this should make me lose sleep. I am female, I have no aspirations to break gender barriers in the military, and I’m well past the age of 18. But by luck and chance I gave birth to all boys, and although my husband and my father both chose active-duty military careers, the thought of my three sons being drafted, without being given a choice, is almost too difficult to bear.

My friends with all daughters don’t have this same worry. Their girls are free to choose military service, but they will not be forced to serve. Choice and freedom surrounds them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want girls to face compulsory military service either, even if only in a theoretical Plan B. But for 30 years, while our country has argued about equality and freedom, almost no one has mentioned Selective Service and what it means for men.

How can we celebrate the abilities of both sexes when our government still operates on the assumption that an unwilling male soldier is better than a female one? How can women fight for equal access if they don’t share an equal burden? If we believe that women can do anything men can do, a draft enacted by the Selective Service will never be “fair and equitable” as long as registration remains a duty that only “a man’s got to do.”