Women and the Draft

Last month, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., spoke at the ARCO Forum about his consciousness-raising bill to reinstitute the military draft. In his speech, Rangel insisted that war or no war, there has to be more “shared sacrifice” in this country—and this needs to include not only men of all races and classes, but women as well.

Of course, there has not been a military draft since 1973, but in 1980 Congress, receiving a bill from President Jimmy Carter, reinstated a requirement for 18-year-old men to register with the Selective Service System so that in the event of a military conflict where volunteer forces are not sufficient, they may be called to serve their country. Men who do not register are barred from receiving federal student aid and are subject to criminal prosecution. Women, on the other hand, are not allowed to register at all.

The Supreme Court, in 1981, upheld Congress’ decision not to register women—the argument being that since women were restricted from combat positions, they would serve the military no useful purpose in a draft intended to gather troops for combat.

However, the court’s argument is undermined by the success of women in the current American military and in the armed forces of other countries—particularly in Israel, the first country ever to conscript women. Since the country’s independence in 1948, the Israeli armed forces have drafted both men and women without any hindrance to their ability to fight and win wars—wars that, in fact, could not possibly have been won without women. For decades, Israeli women have served their country by working in technology, intelligence and other behind-the-scenes positions crucial for military effort. Their work in these non-combative roles allowed more men to move to the front lines. And ever since 1995, many drafted women have proven themselves to be proficient in their new assignment as paramilitary border police, which is the equivalent of combat work.

In the U.S., however, though the draft may honor citizens for their patriotism, it is also one of the most glaring examples of state-sanctioned sexual discrimination. The reality is that despite persisting stereotypes about the weak nature of women in the military, women can and do fight in combat positions with as much strength as their fellow male soldiers. In 1995, the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. found that after 24 weeks of physical training, more than 75 percent of the ordinary female civilians in the study could do the tasks male soldiers were required to do as efficiently and sometimes even better than men. These were mothers, lawyers, bartenders and students doing the exercises of male U.S. Army soldiers. Clearly, testosterone is not a prerequisite to be a competent soldier.

Trends in America defy traditional beliefs about women in the military. While women cannot be required to register for a draft, a growing number of women are volunteering for military service. In 2002, there were 212,000 women on active duty serving in nearly every type of unit, including combat units. Over 40,000 women fought in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, and one out of every five women in uniform was deployed in direct support of the troops in Iraq and Kuwait.

Times have clearly changed, and the role of women in the military has changed dramatically, as well. Women have finally begun to break through the glass ceiling and have achieved a level of equality never seen before. However, their exclusion from the draft only confirms the military’s persistent doubts about the capability of women to fight wars. Granted, not all women are capable of fighting, but then again, not all men are capable either.

As we approach another war with Iraq it is hopeful and likely that a draft will not be necessary. Nevertheless, as long as the Selective Service System is in place, women should be required to register. After all, as the Department of Defense concluded in its 1981 review of the Selective Service System, “the success of the military will increasingly depend upon the participation of women.”

Anat Maytal ’05, a Crimson editor, is a government and women’s studies concentrator in Currier House.