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Women, the Draft, and Draft Registration ("Selective Service")

FAQ: Supreme Court asked to review Constitutionality of current male-only draft registration requirement

What do feminists say about the draft and draft registration?

leaflet updated April 2021: What’s happening with women and draft registration (“Selective Service”)? (PDF)

Take action with CODEPINK women against war: Tell Congress to end draft registration

The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service has recommended that draft registration be extended to young women as well as young men, and that recommendation has been endorsed by President Joe Biden. See our summary and analysis of the report, this joint statement by antidraft organizations, and this call for a full and fair hearing on this issue in Congress. We want to hear from women who plan not to register with the Selective Service System when you turn 18, if you are required to do so. We can publish your resistance statement, with your name or anonymously, or link to your videos or posts on social media. You can reach us at resisters@hasbrouck.org. Your statements will help encourage and empower others. Here are more anti-draft organizations and actions you can take.

“Congress should end draft registration for all, not try to expand it to young women as well as young men,” a group of activists who oppose the draft said in a joint statement on Tuesday. It added, “Even more women than men would resist if the government tried to draft them.”

[“Women Should Have to Register for Military Draft, Too, Commission Tells Congress”, by Sarah Mervosh and John Ismay, New York Times, 24 March 2020]

Nine groups of anti-war activists panned the blue ribbon commission’s recommendation that everyone of draft age sign up with the Selective Service. “Making contingency plans for a draft that would include women would be an exercise in self-delusion by the Selective Service System and military planners,” the groups write in a statement. “Even more women than men would resist if the government tried to draft them.”

[“Commission Issues Verdict: Women, Like Men, Should Have To Sign Up For Draft”, by David Welna, NPR News, 25 March 2020]

“Women’s equality will not be achieved by including women in a draft system that forces civilians to participate in activities that are against their will and harm others in large numbers, such as war. The draft is not a women’s rights issue, as it does nothing to advance the cause of equality and functionally limits freedom of choice for Americans of all genders.

“While we demand equal pay for women in all areas of our economy, it is irresponsible for the fight for women’s rights to seek equal moral injury, equal PTSD, equal brain injury, equal suicide rates, equal lost limbs, or equal violent tendencies that military veterans suffer from. When it comes to the military, women’s equality is better served by ending draft registration for everyone.

“A draft is often viewed as democratic because it spreads the burden of recruitment across social classes; it is even seen by some as reducing the possibility of reckless war-making because it spurs anti-war activism. Compulsion, however, is an undemocratic process, and history does not support the claim that drafts prevent or end wars. The answer to a “volunteer military” disproportionately recruiting from economically disadvantaged communities is not to impose a universal draft but to work against the military’s targeting of underserved communities and provide more economic opportunities beyond military enrollment. No one should have to join the military to get access to a college education or skills training needed to get decent jobs.

“Our nation must move away from endless war and its dangerous reliance on militarism. Let’s not expand draft registration but abolish it.”

[Statement from CODEPINK submitted to the National Commisison on Military, National, and Public Service, 24 September 2019]

No Draft
[Unidentified woman at a protest against President Carter’s proposal to require both women and men to register for the draft, Washington DC, 23 March 1980. Photo by Leif Skoogfors, Getty Images.]

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

Congress is currently considering legislation to expand the authority of the President of the U.S. to order men to register with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft to also include women, and is expected to make a decision in 2021.

President Biden has officially endorsed this proposal, and has included former members of the NCMNPS who made thsi recommendation in his transition team and Cabinet. House Speaker Pelosi voted in favor of the same proposal when it was last considered in 2016. Unless opposition and the likelihood of resistance becomes more visible to Congress, this legislation is likely to be the subject of Congressional hearings in early 2021, and will be incorporated into the Fiscal Year 2022 annual “National Defense Authorization Act” which will be enacted in 2021 and take effect in 2022.

Depending on the effective date of the law and the terms of the proclamation by President Biden which will put it into effect by ordering women to register, women born in 2005 and after will probably be required to register for the draft as they turn 18, starting sometime in 2023.

According to a joint letter sent to Congressional leaders in March 2021 by opponents of draft registration:

The choice is not between male-only draft registration (which is likely to be found unconstitutional) and expanding registration to women. The real choice is whether to expand registration to women or to end it entirely. This is a choice about militarism, not a choice about gender equality.

Expanding draft registration to women would bring about a semblance of equality in war (although women in the military would likely still be subject to disproportionate sexual harassment and abuse). Ending draft registration would bring about real equality in peace and freedom.

In 2016, Congress had an extended debate on whether to expand the current draft registration (“Selective Service”) requirement to women. Congress decided to delay its decision by appointing a National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service (NCMNPS) to study the issue, but the issue will be taken up again by Congress again in 2021 now that the NCMNPS has recommended that draft registration be expanded to women.

A bill to enact the NCMNPS recommendations into law has already been introduced in Congress as H.R. 6415, the “Inspire to Serve Act of 2020”. As recommended by the NCMNPS, this bill would give the President the same authority to order women to register for the draft that the President now has to order men to register. If the President then ordered women and men to register on the same basis that men are now required by law and Presidential proclamation to register, women and men would be required to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday, and report each change of address until their 26th birthday.

There’s no requirement for Congress to enact the NCMNPS recommendations into law, and Congress already has before it an alternate proposal to end draft registration entirely. But Congress is under increasing pressure because if it does nothing, the issue is likely to be decided by the courts in a messy way that embarrass Congress. Amendments to the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) were proposed that would have either ended draft registration or extended it to women, but at a “markup” session in the House Armed Service Committee (HASC) on 1 July 2020, the amendment to expand registration was withdrawn and action was deferred until next year. (7 minute video clip of this portion of the HASC meeting.) Rep. Jackie Speier, Chair of the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the HASC, said that, “You have my commitment that we will have a hearing on this issue within the next year”. Both Rep. Speier and Rep. Adam Smith, the Chair of the full HASC, have supported expanding draft registration to young women as well as young men.

The debate in Congreess on this issue in 2016 prompted this statement from a coalition of antiwar organizations:

The argument that extending the [Selective Service] 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 those responsible for military recruitment understand this very well, and 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. At the very least, it serves as one more avenue by which militarism continues to invade civil society.

(More feminist statements against the draft and draft registration)

In June 2016, 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. Meanwhile, a separate bill was introduced, H.R. 4523, which would have ended draft registration, abolished the Selective Service System, and restored the eligibility of nonregistrants for Federal student aid and all other Federal programs. An improved version of this bill was reintroduced in 2019 as H.R. 5492. That bill expired at the end of 2020, without being borught to a vote. But a similar bill (with a new bill number in the new session of Congress) is likely to be reintroduced in 2021.

Records released in response to a FOIA request show that the Obama Administration debated what to do but decided to take no official position on this issue until after the 2016 elections. According to a White House briefing memo, draft registration was seen as valuable to the military mainly as a “lead generation” tool for military recruiting:

Recruiting Advantages and Other Considerations

The SSS provides a hedge against a catastrophe that the country does not anticipate. In addition, the SSS serves as a means to sustain the legacy of public service by reminding the Nation’s youth that public service is a valued part of American citizenship. National registration information has important application for military recruiting, the naturalization process, student loan processing, and Federal employment.

Due to agreements with the SSS, DOD receives a recruiting advantage from the SSS which provides names, address, and telephone numbers of new SSS registrants to DOD to be used as recruiting leads. In addition, SSS inserts a lead generation card developed by the DOD in the SSS registration packet that generates approximately 75,000-80,000 male leads annually. As DOD expands the number of females recruited, the leads generated by the SSS could be a significant boost to military recruiters. In addition, DOD currently pays third-party vendors to generate female leads. This would no longer be required [if women were required to register with the SSS], thus achieving a small cost savings to DOD.

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 Trump 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 briefing 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 was a National Commission studying this issue? 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. Once that policy was changed, the court ruling that continued registration of men but not women is unconstitutional became a foregone conclusion.

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.

In the first of the lawsuits challenging male-only draft registration to be decided, National Coalition For Men v. Selective Service System, a U.S. District Court judge in Houston ruled on 22 February 2019 that the current draft registration requirement for men is unconstitutional. (More on this decision and what it does and doesn’t mean.) This District Court decision was overturned by 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on 12 August 2002, but the Court of Appeals did not reach the question of whether the requirement for men but not women to register for the draft is Constitutional. Instead, the Court of Appeals held that only the Supreme Court could decide this issue. The plaintiffs in this case, represetned by thew ACLU, have asked the Supreme Court to review this decision.

If Congress does nothing to change the law, Federal courts are eventually likely to prohibit enforcement of the male-only Selective Service registration requirement. This will force Congress to choose whether to extend draft registration to women, or to let a court decision ending registration stand.

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 the President, as Commander-In-Chief, could rescind the orders opening all combat assignments to women, thus restoring the situation in which male-only draft registration 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 and Republicans, and questions about whether women should be required to register were asked in both Democratic and Republican Presidential primary debates. The Selective Service Repeal Act of 2021, now pending in Congress, was intrduced wiht bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

Most members of Congress and Presidential candidates would prefer to avoid the issue of the draft, however.

Joe Biden didn’t announce his position on Selective Service until late in his Presidential campaign, in September 2020. In response to a questionnaire from the Military Officers Assocation of America, Biden said that, “I would… ensure that women are also eligible to register for the Selective Service System so that men and women are treated equally in the event of future conflicts.” Of course this confuses “eligibility” for voluntary enlistment with obligation to submit to involuntary induction into the military.

The first of President Biden’s Cabinet members to be confirmed and take office is Avril Haines, one of the members of the NCMNPS who recommended expanding draft registration to women (and who worked as a consultant to Palantir while serving on the NCMNPS). Two other former members of the NCMNPS, including Debra Wada, who chaired the NCMNPS subcommittee on Selective Service, served on Biden’s transition team.

Previously, Hillary Clinton waited until after the Presidential primaries in 2016 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. Questioned about Selective Service in 2016, many of the Republican Presidential candidates, like Biden in 2020, falsely conflated voluntary enlistment with involuntary conscription.

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.

“Selective Service System registration is ageist, in that it only targets youth; sexist, in that it only targets those identified male at birth; undemocratic, as it takes away the right to religious freedom; and immoral, since it takes away the choice to follow one’s conscience.” (Kate Connell, letter to the editor, Los Angeles Times, 5 March 2019)

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.

“Draft registration for men failed: criminal enforcement had to be abandoned decades ago in the face of pervasive noncompliance. Even the former Director of the Selective Service System testified to the NCMNPS that the current Selective Service System database is ‘less than useless’ as the basis for a draft. Trying to draft women or get them to register to be drafted would be even more of a fiasco.”

[Joint statement by anti-draft organizations in response to the report of the NCMNPS, March 2020]

Since enforcement of the criminal penalties for nonregistration was abandoned in the late 1980s, the Selective Service System has depended on state laws in many states (although not California or some others) that require Selective Service registration as a condition for issuance of drviers licenses. The problems this will cause for any attempt to expand draft registration to women were raised by Edward Allard, former Director of Operations for the Selective Service System and a member of the National Commisison on Military, National, and Public Service, during a closed-door NCMNPS meeting in 2019:

Mr. Allard said he completely disagreed with Mr. Benton [Director of the Selective Service System during the Trump Administration] about state drivers’ license legislation. He said only a handful of states have laws that are gender neutral and it will be a challenging process to change those laws if registration is required of all Americans [regardless of gender]. Many of those laws, he noted, have been in place for a long time and any changes to them could yield entirely different results.

In other words, hawkish (but also sexist) state legislators who were happy to link drivers licenses for young men to draft registration may not be so willing to amend those laws to make the same linkage for women. Given the dependence of such limited compliance as the SSS now obtains on these state laws, this means that Congress doesn’t actually have the power to expand draft registration to women without state collaboration. If Congress votes to expand registration to women, states will be able to effectively opt out for their residents by refusing to expand their state drivers licrense linkage laws to women, or by repealing them entirely. Congressional action on women and draft registraiton will trigger dozens of divisive state legislative debates that will inevitably go on for years.

There’s a long history of anti-draft activism by women, including advocacy of resistance to draft registration by women as well as men. See this sampler of excerpts from feminist statements against requiring women or men to register for a draft or or to be drafted.

As Dorothy Day, founder of the anarchist-pacifist Catholic Worker movement, wrote during World War II when Congress briefly considering requiring women to register for a draft of nurses (prompting a national mobilization against requiring women to register or be drafted):

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 Jimmy Carter announced his proposal to reinstate draft registration in his State of the Union address on 23 January 1980, and followed up with a proposal to Congress for authority to order both women and men to register, some of the strongest initial grassroots opposition came from women.

Women Won't Kill for EXXON
[9 February 1980 — In response to President Carter’s proposal to require both young women and young men to register for the draft, more than 2,000 people demonstrated against registration and the draft in front of the Army Recruiting Center in Times Square, New York City. Photo © Keystone Press Agency/Keystone USA via ZUMAPRESS.com]

The National Resistance Committee (NRC) was founded at a meeting at the Women’s Building in San Francisco on 1 March 1980. Many women remained active in the resistance, including in the NRC, 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. Feminist leaders were among those who testiifed to Congress against requiring men or women to register for the draft:

[We] adamantly oppose[] draft registration for men and women. It… will only contribute to a national war climate….

Those few of us who warned against deeper U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the Gulf of Tonkin scare in the 1960s know that the best time to stop a war is before it begins. Any realistic discussion of draft registration must be based on the recognition that registration is a prelude to the draft, and the draft is a prelude to war….

Feeding our sons and daughters into the draft registration machinery can only have detrimental, divisive effects on our country. The terrible events in Iran and Afghanistan are not sufficient justification for the shift… into a new cold war campaign that would sacrifice American lives to back up our dependence on foreign oil and the shamelessly profiteering American oil monopoly. We should not be talking about sending teenagers to die in the Persian Gulf…

Women have always led anti-war movements, and we are speaking out know against efforts to make another war thinkable and acceptable. As feminists, we reject the male establishment’s war reflex as the solution to international problems…. Women know that when military spending goes up, the programs we care about most get lost…. Women… will again bear the brunt of wrong government policies….

The issue of whether women should be registered along with men has been used as another diversion from the real debate. The President’s statement that women must register for the draft to show that they deserve equal rights is as specious as his whole registration ploy. Women are not looking for special privileges on the basis of gender…. Women have made sacrifices, fought and died in every war our country has been engaged in. It is insulting to suggest that we must prove our patriotism or our dedication to equal rights by blindly accepting this ill-advised draft registration proposal. We insist on our right to debate and reject the premise that registration is necessary or desirable. Women, as well as men, have an equal right to refuse to be drafted, just as women have an equal right to volunteer for the armed services, if that is what they choose to do.

It is ironic but typical that the President wants to force young women into a system in which they meet the same kind of discrimination they encounter as civilians…

We do not endorse draft registration of women as the road to equality in the military, just as we do not endorse draft registration of men as the solution to male unemployment. The question we should all be asking is not whether women should be registered, but whether anyone should be registered. [Our] answer is an emphatic no.

[Former U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug, testimony to the Subcommittee on Independent Agencies of the Senate Appropriations Committee, 11 March 1980.]

For some radical feminist women draft resisters’ perspectives on why they were involved in the anti-draft movement in the 1980s, even when only men were required to register for the draft, see these articles by Liz Davidson, Ann Wrixon, Marian Henriquez Neudel, and Donna Warnock.

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.”)

Lesbian Anti-Draft Action
[Lesbian Anti-Draft Action contingent in the West Coast mobilization against the draft and draft registration, Market Street, San Francisco, 22 March 1980. Photo by Chris Booth for Resistance News. The next banner, partially visible, is from the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center.]

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 articles collected by 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 in 2016 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 positions 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.]

Both sides consider themselves feminists. But is feminism a liberal ideology of equality, or a radical ideology of liberation?

We are opposed to reinstatement of compulsory registration. As the first step toward reinstatement of the draft, registration is a return to the sexist and racist Selective Service System which gave us discrimination against the poor, minorities, and women while it lowered the quality of our military forces. Our long standing position against violence combined with our determination to end discrimination makes us unable to support registration….

NOW is against the registration of young people precisely because it is a response which stimulates the environment of preparation for war. Too many of us still remember the senseless killing and destruction in Vietnam — which we also protested — and believe that violence is the “ultimate solution” taught most typically to males in our society. We reject that solution, and believe that too many are willing to wage war with others’ lives. National defense and self defense is one thing; aggression for economic self-interest is quite another. To fight a war for oil is to deny that the inherent rights of all human beings must take precedence over the economic self-interest of a very few. We are committed to working for the day when our nation and our world priorities will be people-a day when our domestic problems are not solved by military aggression.

[Statement by Eleanor Smeal, President, National Organization for Women, 1980]

Despite the massive mobilizations against Reaganism and the Reagan Revolution and the 1990-1991 Gulf War that coincided with the campaign against draft registration from 1980-1991, the secondary-source literature on 1980s activist history is grossly incomplete. But for more on 1980s antiwar feminist theory, see the other articles on this site and the book, Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, Pam McAllister, ed., New Society Publishers, 1982. On the role of feminists in antiwar activism, see Barbara Epstein, Political Protest & Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s. On the debate between liberal “egalitarian feminists” and radical antiwar feminists, see Ilene Rose Feinman, Citizenship Rites: Feminist Soldiers & Feminist Antimilitarists, N.Y.U. Press, 2000.

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 coalition 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. All rights reserved.]

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:

To the liberals’ challenge, “If they draft men, why not draft women?” there’s really only one answer - it’s not okay to draft men. And no, it’s not okay to draft women, and no, we don’t owe … the government … collusion in as patriarchal and misogynist an institution as the draft…. Whatever else it is, war is a patriarchal institution, and every war is a war against 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 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. A Mormon law professor describes herself as a feminist, but argues, “I am advocating opposition to the extension of the military draft to women…. I’m asking Congress, are we building into this law a conscientious objector exception for women who devoutly believe that their God-given mission in life is to be in their happy home creating a family and then building a safe place for their children to grow in a loving and secure environment?”

Anti-feminist pro-military opposition to President Jimmy Carter’s proposal in 1980 to include women in draft registration as led by Phyllis Schlafly and the organization she founded, the Eagle Forum, which were also leading opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment. One of their arguments against the ERA was that if the ERA were approved, it would require that any future draft apply equally to men and women. One of Schlafly’s last published columns before her death in 2016 was in opposition to extending draft registration to women. In August 2019, the Eagle Forum filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting continued registration of men for the draft, opposing requiring women to register, and asking the Court of Appeals to overturn the District Court decision in National Coalition For Men v. Selective Service System.

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 that the ruling that males-only draft registration is unconstitutional will be upheld on appeal provides the perfect opportunity for Congress to end draft registration entirely. My Representative in Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has claimed in the past to oppose the draft and to think ending draft registration was “worthy of attention”. But in 2016, after months of avoiding avoiding taking a public position on the draft, Rep. Pelosi voted against defunding the Selective Service System and in favor of extending it to women as well as men. (Pelosi’s opponent in the 2020 Democratic Party primary, Shahid Buttar, said that if elected, he would “absolutely” support legislation to end draft registration and contingency planning for military conscription.)

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.

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This page most recently modified 15 April 2021. This site is maintained by Edward Hasbrouck. Corrections, contributions (articles, graphics, photos, videos, links, etc.), and feedback are welcomed.