Last month the senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual defense bill that includes both budgetary and policy considerations for the armed forces. This year the act included a provision requiring women to register for the selective service. The new requirement would apply to any woman turning 18 on or after January 1, 2018.
The measure was introduced by house republican Duncan Hunter of California. Representative Hunter never intended for the measure to be approved, but introduced it simply to highlight the absurdity of allowing women to serve in combat roles.
Representative Hunter’s controversial amendment has since been removed from the house bill, but the fact that it survived the senate vote tells us that the idea is not nearly as unpalatable as some may believe - and may become a reality before long.
But for those who may be uncomfortable with the idea of merging women’s equality with something as distasteful as involuntary conscription, here are a few reason we should seriously consider including women in the draft:
1. There is no such thing as selective equality. Equality means shared burdens as well as shared opportunities. Unfortunately our recent history with wars of aggression has given a lot of women (and men) fair reason to question the morality of the draft for either sex. In other words, equality is better achieved by relieving men of the burden of registering for the selective service rather than expanding the burden to include women. But regardless of how you feel about the current landscape of warfare or geopolitical posturing, it’s hard to argue for gender equality while insisting upon a gender-based exemption when it comes to national defense. What the selective service is really about is worst-case scenarios. When our borders and property and collective culture are threatened with foreign violence and the volunteer Army appears to be inadequate to defend us, aren’t women just as capable and just as willing to stand up and defend the rights we’ve earned and the society we’ve established? You don’t have to believe in the Iraq War or the airstrikes in Syria to believe in this shared responsibility.
2. There are a number of ways for women to contribute that don’t involve combat. A draft doesn’t mean that women will be air-dropped into enemy territory with M-4s at their sides. The military needs doctors, lawyers, and dentists. It needs IT professionals, police officers, and intelligence analysts. It needs musicians and journalists. It needs human resource specialists, linguists, and logisticians. It needs cooks and truck drivers. It needs pilots and mechanics. Women can do all of these things. They don’t require an exceptional amount of brute strength or hazardous warrior training. Just brains and effort.
Obviously, not everyone is well-suited for a military career– but that statement is no more true of women than it is of men. And if young men can be called upon to fill a temporary need, even if it doesn’t quite suit their ideologies or sensibilities, there is no justifiable reason that the same sacrifice shouldn’t be asked of women.
3. Your daughter is not a princess. There are no princesses in America. In fact, we fought a costly war over 200 years ago to rid ourselves of any sort of monarchy. And since wearing fancy dresses and attending balls is not really a viable career option, it wouldn’t hurt for girls to get their hands dirty. Physical fitness, discipline and tests of endurance do wonders for one’s sense of pride and independence. Even a brief experience with military training is capable of teaching young girls that they’re not as vulnerable as they think they are. That their minds and bodies can do so much more than they’ve been led to believe.
4. Equal participation fosters a sense of community, responsibility, and civic engagement. There was a time in America’s past when the entire nation went to war. Young women went to work in factories. Older women darned socks for soldiers. Families grew vegetables in gardens. Everyone felt the scarcity and the personal cost of war in at least some small way. When the draft was our principal means of assembling and training our Armed Forces, even celebrities like Elvis Presley or Joe DiMaggio were called to assist the war effort. The transition to the volunteer Army didn’t do away with warfare, but it did ensure that the responsibility fell on a far smaller and less representative segment of the population – mainly minority and poor communities with little resources or opportunities. Requiring women to register for the selective service isn’t going to bring back this shared burden or sense of national commitment, but at the very least it will set the expectation that no one, not even Kylie Jenner, is exempt from service should the need arise. And maybe, just maybe, if everyone were subject to the same rules, we’d put a little more thought into when and where we go to war.
5. The military encourages a less sexualized work environment. The first time that many young women experience real power is when they come into their sexuality. They suddenly realize that they can influence men, sway opinions, and gain significant advantages through flirtation and body language. So who can blame them when they start to use this new-found power in potentially destructive ways? I’ve come across plenty of anecdotal evidence that young women have a hard time navigating the dress codes of their offices when they first begin their careers. They’re often reluctant to let go of the gimmicks that earned them so much positive attention in college, not realizing that the boardroom requires a different wardrobe and a different skill set.
There is nothing feminine or alluring about a military uniform. To the contrary, military hair and uniform regulations seemed designed to keep any emphasis on sexuality out of the organization. Young women are seen as soldiers. They are expected to act professionally and to perform their jobs to standard. They do not wear nail polish or glitter or even slenderizing pantsuits. If they want to be noticed, they must do so through intellect, creativity, and effort.
6. Equal Pay. Military pay is tied to rank and pay scales are publicly available. A female private earns the same pay as a male private. A female general earns the same pay as a male general. There are no negotiated salaries. No uncomfortable rituals in which women must carefully balance the need to argue their own worth without coming across as too aggressive or demanding. Women in the military can perform their jobs without questioning whether they are being undervalued or under-compensated in comparison with their male peers.
7. Leadership Opportunities. Leadership opportunities in the military, like pay increases, are tied to rank. A female sergeant, regardless of position, is expected to lead lower enlisted soldiers. She is expected to set standards, to monitor performance, to coach, to guide, and mentor those beneath her. There are no exceptions. In the military there is no option to simply perform your job well in the background, earning occasional pay bumps with no accompanying increase in responsibilities. The military’s goal is train all soldiers to be effective decision-makers and authority figures.
8. Women will make the military smarter, more agile, and more equitable. In short, women will make the military better. Women are talented strategists. They are adept negotiators and critical thinkers. Much has been made of recent studies showing that corporations with women board members tend to be more profitable. Women’s perspectives and in fact, their very presence can influence discussions and lead to better decisions and better results. The military is no different. Our Armed Forces are still heavily dominated by men, but every day women are making up a greater share of these organizations. These women are bringing louder, more confident female voices to the table, working to change policies and challenging the long-standing culture of the services.
9. A gender-neutral draft will help broaden perceptions and expectations of what women can do. Sometimes the mere creation of a law or a public standard can lead to measurable change, just by raising society’s expectations. The draft hasn’t been a realistic possibility for a long time and in all likelihood, requiring women to register will only make it that much more of relic. But at the same time, it will put gender equality on the books in a way that hasn’t yet been seen in this country. There is a chance that by doing so, we are changing the conversation about women’s roles in a very powerful way. As a nation, we are telling women and girls that we expect the same selflessness, determination, heroism, and grit from them as we do from men and boys. Maybe when they hear this message, they just might see a broader potential for themselves when they look in the mirror.