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Women and Draft Registration ("Selective Service")

Feminists Say: Stop The Draft

"Will women be drafted? Will women be required to register for the draft?"

In 2016, Congress had an extended debate on whether to expand the current draft registration ("Selective Service") requirement to women.

In June 2106, the U.S. Senate approved a "National Defense Authorization Act" (NDAA) including a provision that would require young women to register for the draft on the same terms as young men, starting on January 1, 2018 with women born on or after January 1, 2000. A similar provision was removed from the version of the bill approved earlier by the House, and after the November 2016 a House-Senate conference committee of the lame-duck Congress decided to remove this provision from the final compromise version of the bill. That leaves the status quo intact: men, but not women, are still required to register, and that male-only registration is vulnerable to Constitutional challenge, as discussed below. Meanwhile, a separate bill was introduced, H.R. 4523, which would have ended draft registration, abolish the Selective Service System, and restore the eligibility of nonregistrants for Federal student aid and all other Federal programs.

At the end of 2016, after the election of President Trump but while President Obama was still in office, Congress punted the issue into the next Presidential adminstration by voting to create a National Commission on Military, National and Public Service to study and make recommendations to Congress and the President regarding the future of the draft, draft registration, and compulsory "service", specifically including the question of whether women should be required to register for a draft or should be included in a compulsory service system.

Slides from a briifing by the Director of the Selective System at one of the Commisisson's first meetings, disclosed in response to my Freedom Of Information Act request, show that the Selective Service System is already making contingency plans (see Slide 6) for registering women for a possible military draft. Note that the budget estimate does not include any enforcement costs:

SSS contingency plans to register women for the draft

Why is a National Commission studying this issue now? In 1981 the Supreme Court upheld requiring men but not women to register for the draft. The court based its decision on "deference" to the military policy which, at that time, excluded women from combat assignments. Now that this policy has changed, it's likely that continued registration of men but not women will be found unconstitutional. Lawsuits against male-only draft registration are already working their way through the courts.

Several lawsuits again challenging males-only draft registration were filed as soon as the Pentagon announced that it would begin considering women for some combat positions. It's unclear which of these lawsuits, or which new one, will be the first one to be decided. But if Congress takes no action, Federal courts are likely to rule that the current requirement for men but not women to register is unconstitutional, and prohibit enforcement of that male-only requirement. Such a court ruling would force Congress to choose whether to extend draft registration to women, or to let a court decision ending registration stand.

One of the lawsuits challenging male-only draft registration, "National Coalition for Men v. Selective Service System" was reinstated by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on 19 February 2016. On 9 November 2016, a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that this case had been filed in the wrong place, and ordered it transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, where the plaintiff lives. On 6 April 2018, a U.S. District Court judge in Houston denied the government's motion to dismiss the case, allowing it to proceed toward a trial or a decision on the merits of the Constitutional claim.

Under current law, the courts can't order women to register. Nor can the President or the Pentagon, without action by Congress to change the law. So unless Congress extends the registration requirement to women, registration of men will have to end if courts find that it is illegally discriminatory. On the other hand, the current males-only draft registration could be ended by Presidential proclamation, by Congress, or by the Federal courts if they find that it is unconstitutional. A third option is that President and Commander-In-Chief Trump could rescind the orders opening all combat assignments to women, thus restoring the situation in which male-only draft registrtation was found by the Supreme Court to bear a Constitutional relationship to providing male-only combat military forces.

The draft and draft registration, for both women and men, are bipartisan issues. Bills to extend draft registration to women were introduced in Congress in 2016 by both Democrats (H.R. 1509) and Republicans (H.R. 4478), and questions about whether women should be required to register were asked in both Democratic and Republican Presidential primary debates.

H.R. 4523, a bill to end draft registration entirely, abolish the Selective Service System, and repeal the Federal "Solomon Amendments" linking draft registration to Federal student aid, job training, and other programs was also been introduced in the House by a bipartisan group of sponsors.

Most members of Congress and Presidential candidates would prefer to avoid the issue of the draft, however. Hillary Clinton waited until after the Presidential primaries to announce that she supports extending draft registration to women. Bernie Sanders was one of only two Senators absent from the vote on this issue in the Senate in June 2016. Donald Trump has not announced any position on this issue.

Regardless of whether Congress or the President think that young women "should" be ready and willing to be drafted, the only realistic choice for Congress is not to extend draft registration to women, but to end it for all.

Congress could enact a law extending draft registration to women. But draft registration isn't self-implementing. Extending registration to women would require getting women to comply with the law, and enforcing the law if they don't do so voluntarily.

Is there any reason to think that young women would be more willing to sign up to be drafted than young men have been? I doubt it.

There's a long history of anti-draft activism by women, incluiding advocacy of resistance to draft registration by women as well as men. As Dorothy Day, founder of the anarchist-pacificst Catholic Worker movement, wrote during World War II:

I will not register for conscription, if conscription comes for women.... Instead, I publish my statement here, my declaration of purpose, and if it encourages other women not to register, I shall be glad at such increase in our numbers.

I shall not register because I believe modern war to be murder, incompatible with a religion of love. I shall not register because registration is the first step towards conscription, and the only way to do away with war is to do away with conscription.

"Nothing would sooner free the world from the scourge of war, the most deadly plague with which humanity is at present threatened," wrote E.I. Watkins some years ago, "than the resolute refusal of a sufficient number to serve in the army. Even a small minority would prepare the way for the future refusal of large masses. All who are not willing to be conscripts from whatever motive, should unite in proclaiming this refusal."...

"But why object to registering? Why not register and then refuse if your number is called?"

By little and by little we must resist. Why take the first step if we do not intend to go on? Why count on exemption... and so lose the opportunity to testify to the truth that we feel so strongly?

When President Carter announced his proposal to reinstate draft registration in his State of the Union address in 1980, some of the strongest initial grassroots opposition came from women. Many women remained active in the resistance, including in the National Resistance Committee, even after the bill approved by Congress was narrowed to require only men to register, though the press tended to focus on male draft resisters.

Women's Pentagon Action: Stop the Draft

As illustrated in the poster above by Yolanda V. Fundora, the draft was one of the major issues raised by 2,000+ participants in the Women's Pentagon Actions in November 1980 and November 1981, well after draft registration had been limited to men. According to their Unity Statement:

We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination. We are right to be afraid. At the same time our cities are in ruins, bankrupt; they suffer the devastation of war. Hospitals are closed, our schools are deprived of books and teachers. Our young Black and Latino youth are without decent work. They will be forced, drafted to become the cannon fodder for the very power that oppresses them... We do not want to be drafted into the army. We do not want our young brothers to be drafted. We want them equal with us.

A report on the anti-draft movement by the New York Times in August 1982 noted that, "Some feminist organizations are attracted to the issue. After many women's groups opposed President Carter's unsuccessful proposal for registration of women, they have tended to line up against the peacetime draft of men, too." (The same article reported that, "Some antidraft activists ... say ... that if thousands fail to respond, the Government will not be able to track them down. 'For every one of those who openly say, 'I'm not going to register,' there are probably 50 to 100 who are doing it privately,' said Fred Moore of the National Resistance Committee in San Francisco.")

Women have been among those health care workers most concerned about Selective Service preparations for for a draft of doctors, nurses, and many other medical professionals, which would include women but could be based on professional licensing lists rather than on self-registration of potential draftees.

The split between liberal advocates for gender equality and radical feminists who oppose war and the draft as sexist, even when only men have been drafted, is not new. When men fight, women die. (For similar arguments about LGBTQ "equality" and inclusion in the military, see the Web site of Against Equality and their anthology Against Equality: Don't Ask to Fight Their Wars, also included as a section in their larger collection, Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion.) Hillary Clinton's endorsement of the proposal to expand draft registration to women has renewed a debate that also occurred when draft registration was reinstated in 1980:

When President Jimmy Carter revealed his proposal to register women and men for the draft,... organizations took positions varying from WILPF's total opposition to registration to Phyllis Schlafly's opposition to drafting women. The National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus changed their posiitons from January 25 to February 8 [1980] from total opposition to the draft to opposition coupled with the idea that if there were to be a draft, it had to include women. The debate was on between feminists who believed in equality within male power structures and feminists who believed in changing male structures of power, in this case, in opposing war and militarization altogether. ("Women Leaders in the Peace/Antiwar Movements", by Carolyn M. Stephenson, Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution, University of Hawai'i, in Gender and Women's Leadership: A Reference Handbook, SAGE Publications, 2010.)

In July 2016, the National Organization for Women issued a statement calling the expansion of draft registration to women a step toward equality, and co-signed a letter to the House-Senate conference committee, along with the ACLU and other organizations, in support of extending the current Selective Service registration requirement to women in the name of "equality" rather than feminism. "The undersigned organizations urge you to retain the Senate language (Section 591) requiring women to register for the draft." A coaliton of organizations including the War Resisters League responded:

The argument that extending the registration requirement to women is a way to help reduce gender-based discrimination is specious. It does not represent a move forward for women; it represents a move backward, imposing on young women a burden that young men have had to bear unjustly for many decades -- a burden that no young person should have to bear at all. Even more disturbing, this argument fails to acknowledge or address the pervasive climate of sexism and sexual violence that is the reality of military life for many women who serve. If the argument for requiring registration of women as well as men, often framed erroneously as an argument for "equal rights," prevails, our society's already swift move toward normalizing military violence for youth and young adults in general, will gain a particular focus on women's participation in military violence. We believe that ... the push to extend the registration requirement to women is made -- at least in part -- because it will become a facilitating factor for recruiting more people to fight our current endless wars.

Women share many of men's reason not to register for a military draft, and have other reasons of their own. Today, people of all ages and genders question why the U.S. is supporting the fundamentalist (and supremely sexist) monarchy in Saudi Arabia, or its dictatorial allies in Yemen, among others. There are both feminist and sexist arguments against subjecting women to the draft and draft registration.

Teenagers Against the Draft
[Teenagers Against the Draft, Boston, MA, 21 March 1981. Photo © Ellen Shub.]

From a feminist perspective, "I wouldn't mind the privilege of being among the first women to burn their draft cards", Karen Lindsey said at an anti-draft rally in Boston in 1979 or 1980, before Congress decide to enact a draft registration requirement for men but not women. (Speech reprinted as "Women and the Draft" in Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, New Society Publishers, 1982.) One feminist group adopted the following statement in January 1980:

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom strenuously opposes the conscription of men or women for war or preparation for war and we oppose registration as the first step toward conscription.... Sisterhood is international -- it does not stop at international borders. If we embrace militarism and conscription as part of equality we will be declaring our sisters as enemies. That is something we as women and as feminists WILL NEVER do.... Sisterhood is powerful. Say NO to registration; say NO to the draft!

As an example of the anti-feminist case against requiring women to register for the draft, consider this statement (worth reading in its entirety) from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the the Southern Baptist Convention: "A military draft of women ... isn't just a military proposal; it's about an entire worldview built on the bankrupt ideology of egalitarianism.... Policy-makers are asking men to comply before a culture of emasculation by surrendering their innate gifting and their innate calling." The Presbyterian Church in America opposes allowing women in combat or subjecting women to military conscription on similarly sexist scriptural grounds.

Extending draft registration to women will provoke at least as much resistance as did draft registration for men in 1980. It will force the government, once again, to choose whether to turn the country into a police state to round up all those who fail to register on demand, or to try (probably unsuccessfully) to terrorize them into compliance through show trials and incarceration of a few of the people seen as "leaders" of the resistance.

Draft registration of men has been a fiasco for the government since its resumption in 1980. But the government has never been able to find a face-saving way to end registration and shut down the Selective Service System without admitting that its scare tactics failed, or dealing with the implications of young people's insistence on making their own choices about which wars they are willing to fight.

The likelihood and imminence of a court ruling that males-only draft registration is now unconstitutional provides the perfect opportunity for Congress to end draft registration entirely.

Are you a young woman who is thinking about whether you would register for the draft, if draft registration is extended to women? Would you register? Would you speak out publicly about not registering? Is there anything we can do to support you? Have you written things about registration and the draft that you would like us to publish -- anonymously, pseudonymously, or in your real name -- or link to? Are there resources already published about this that you would like us to link to? Groups of women who are working on this together? Individual or collective "I Won't Go" or "We Won't Go" statements? Are you working together with other young women who don't want to register, and/or other supporters? What can men, older people, and other organizations do to help you and other young women? Please suggest links, things you are doing that you want others to know about, or things you would like men and older people to do to help.

Mobilization Against the Draft
[Women in the front ranks of the West Coast mobilization against draft registration on Market St. in San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photo by Chris Booth for Resistance News.]

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