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A Feminist Perspective on the Anti-Draft Movement

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.]

By Ann Wrixon

(24 February 1986)

As a feminist, I believe sexism is the model for all other oppressions. I am not satisfied, nor do I think it makes sense, to let this issue take a back seat to others. This world view is frequently referred to as “radical feminism.” So as a radical feminist, many people are baffled as to why I work in the anti-draft movement, which appears to be mainly of concern to men. I think this is a dangerous misconception, however, that desperately needs to be corrected. I would like to take this time to examine how the draft directly affects women, and also the crucial links between this issue and other movements for social justice.

To begin with, women may actually be facing a draft in the not too distant future. In 1980 President Carter wanted to register women for the draft, but Congress rejected this. Over the past five years, there have been repeated calls for a draft registration of health professionals (including women). Most recently, this past September, General Quinn, the Army Surgeon General, asked Congress to consider a peacetime draft registration of health professionals.

It is also easy to forget that although men usually wage war, women are frequently its victims. Women often serve in combat zones, and their units frequently suffer casualties. Also, both women and men are killed and injured when civilian populations become engulfed in a war (and women are often raped as well). It is important to remember that large numbers of women, as well as men, die in wars. A draft would be used to support U.S. wars throughout the world.

More subtle, however, is the danger to women of military training itself. Violence against women is both an overt and implicit part of military training. An article in the Policy Review (Summer 1985), , a publication of the Heritage Foundation, stated, “Many of the traditional (military) techniques for instilling courage and a fighting spirit might be regarded as sexual harassment.” Other observers have stated the problem in even stronger terms. For example, an Army psychologist interviewed by the Army Times several years ago explained, “We take these men (in basic training) and ask them to get in touch with their aggressiveness and their violent tendencies …then we tell them (after basic) they must hold it all in check until we ask them to release it in war. It’s no wonder that it spills over when we don’t want it to — into fighting and brawling — and raping women.” Obviously, it is dangerous for anyone — especially women — to support drafting young men into an institution that teaches violence against women as a normal part of its training.

This is not to say that I support the present all-volunteer military, which is primarily reliant on the poverty draft to maintain its strength. The poverty draft targets the poor and minority members of our society, who have few other economic alternatives. Thirty-two percent of enlisted service-members are minorities, which is a much larger percentage than their representation in the society as a whole. Not only will these service-members face discrimination and harassment, and possibly war, but most will also not learn a marketable civilian skill, since most military jobs have no civilian application.

It is a mistake to think that a draft would solve the poverty draft. Exemptions and deferments would be available to those who were educated and informed enough to present clear, sophisticated answers to confusing questions. Education and draft counseling are frequently denied to minorities and lower-income youth, and so they will be the ones drafted to fight the next war.

Clearly the draft is not just a “men’s issue,” nor is it merely an issue of conscription, as illustrated by the current poverty draft. Why, then, has it come to be seen as such? Part of the problem is that the perceived leadership of the movement has been white men, and as a result the movement has tended to focus on their concerns. This tendency has been heightened by the media which generally focuses on individual resisters as spokespersons for the entire anti-draft movement.

It is particularly important to break the stereotype of resisters as white, college-educated men, as most nonregistrants (and therefore a source of tremendous potential support for the anti-draft movement) do not fit this mold. According to a Selective Service mandated study, less than 20 percent of draft nonregistrants are white, middle-class, or college-educated. It is vital that the anti-draft community make links between conscription and issues that concern these young people, such as unemployment and the poverty draft.

The concerns of women in the anti-draft movement must also be addressed. At the grassroots level, women appear to compose 50% or more of the anti-draft movement, but repeatedly express frustration at their role in anti-draft activities. Last April women from throughout the East Coast met to discuss this problem. They made several suggestions for developing a non-sexist resistance movement that affirms the risk and commitments of all those involved. These included linking the draft to other issues, such as war tax resistance. They also encouraged activists to plan anti-draft actions that did not tie into an individual resister’s case, and to initiate workshops or speakers on the draft at multi-issue/coalition events.

The links between the draft and other issues are not difficult to make. For example, South Africa recently detained anti-draft activists there. Those activists, who have now been released, threatened apartheid by calling for an end to conscription which helps sup[port that system. There are strong parallels between the anti-draft movement in South Africa and the one in the U.S. It would be impossible for the U.S. to fight wars of intervnetion without the support of the young men who are the potential soldiers.
In this country, a draft would no doubt be used to fight wars of intervention, quite possibly in Central America. The government must be given a clear message that a million or more young men have already stated that they will not participate in such a war by refusing to register for the draft. Central America solidarity workers can use this information in their efforts to affect U.S. foreign policy in Central America.

Linking the draft to other issues is perhaps the first step in broadening and strengthening the base of the anti-draft movement. It is essential that the concerns of women and people of color be given serious consideration within the anti-draft movement. In turn, the issue of the draft would be revitalized. The draft is not a dead issue, but it has been isolated. A serious effort must be made to include women and people of color at both the grassroots and national levels of the movement, and this can be done by addressing their concerns.

[At the time she wrote this article, Ann Wrixon was the editor of “The Objector”, a journal of draft and military counseling published by the the Western Regional Office of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) in Oakland, CA. This article was originally syndicated by RECON Publications, issue #86-3, 24 February 1986. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.]

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