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Sexual Politics and the Draft

By Donna Warnock

(15 October 1980)

It’s time to take President Carter and the recruitment, registration, and drafting of women more seriously.

Jimmy Carter’s proposal to register women [in January 1980] was clearly an election-year ploy. But I believe it would be a mistake to describe Carter’s act as a fraudulent one just because the drafting of separate-sex Selective Service bills insured the defeat of the female version.

Some charged that it diverted attention from the issue of increasing militarization of society. But to the contrary, the President’s maneuver underscored the sexual politics of militarization. The strength of Carter’s position is that it enhanced both militarization and sexual oppression regardless of the outcome of the further debate on women’s registration in Congress. Carter would not have introduced the proposal had he thought it could hurt the militarization of society. Nor would he have proposed it had he thought it would significantly improve the position of women in society.

Carter’s act spurred on that glorification of masculine bravery so crucial to war-building and woman-hating. He sparked emphasis on female cowardice. In the very same gesture he evoked a patriotism among feminists and laid the groundwork for public acceptance of increased involvement of women in the armed forces. Yes, how many women will be willing to fight - to the death of necessary - and sacrifice their sisters as well - to prove themselves worthy of the ERA? Carter’s gesture gave bellicose patriotism of platform in the women’s movement.

Drafting Women

But men need not fear. They will be able to have their cake and eat it too. If women are drafted, those to serve will surely be determined by mail a valuation of their social (read: male) usefulness, as in Algeria where widows and divorced women were the first chosen for military service. Here too it would be the women who are “of no other use” who would be sacrificed. Whether women are sent back to the home, or to the battlefield, they will still be treated by men as servants.

Contrary to right-wing ravings, women will enhance the posture of the armed forces. Because of its recent “manpower” crisis, the military itself is willing to draw more on women’s energy. The registration of women increases the reserve labor pool from which they can draw their desired recruits.

The higher education levels required in today’s technological and chemical warfare lead to the change in women’s military role. Between 1971 in 1978, female recruits had a high school graduation rate of 92.5% compared to 66.3% for their male counterparts.

Increasing women’s involvement would also help mitigate the military’s racial “problems.” Black men now constitute 30% of the All Volunteer Army’s enlistees. Soon after of the junior enlisted ranks will be Black, a significant problem in Third World ventures. So with the threat of war upon us, the draft, which would lower Black participation from almost one in 321 and nine, becomes a necessity. The recruitment and registration of women would help further diminish Black influence.

This may be why in the spring of 1979 the Department of “Defense” asked Congress to repeal its prohibition of women on aircraft and naval vessels assigned combat missions (the Army has no such restrictions, but keeps women out of combat as a matter of policy), and there’s been an increasing trend toward applying sex restrictions to “close contact” combat only.

Of course the military is attempting to use these maneuvers to pass itself off as the biggest boon to women’s equality since the vote. “Today’s Army is leading the way and opportunities for women,” boasts the slick brochure being distributed by recruitment offices around the country. “No longer is a woman restricted to a traditional role. Now you can do the totally new.”

The sad truth is that many feminists, eager to lower female unemployment rates and increase job opportunities, are glad to comply with the military. The National NOW Times’ June 1980 issue gave a glowing report of a Seminar on Women in the Military, paraphrasing from a speech thereby Under Secretary of the Air Force Antonia Chayes, who addressed, “the need to train junior high and high school guidance counselors to promote the military as a viable career option and the need for schools to move young girls into mathematics and science courses so that they can meet the basic requirements of technical careers where advancement is sure.”

Such recruitment efforts have been meeting with success. The ratio of women on active military duty has steadily risen from under 2% of the forces in 1972 to almost 7.5% in 1979. That means that there are 153,265 women serving, and the Department of “Defense” wants to increase the number to 235,800 or 11.5%.

Women and the Anti-Draft Movement

Thus we see that the military registration of women would improve the hand of patriarchy, increase militarism, and heighten inequality. Reports of anti-draft rallies around the country however indicate that little attention has been paid to women’s concerns.

Patrick Lacefield’s response (WIN, 7/1/1980) to Carter’s tactic [of proposing to register both women and men ] was that it “dodged the question of registering young men, the ultimate goal of the Carter administration in any event.” Case dismissed. But it’s really Pat who’s dodged the question.

He and many others across the country responded merely to the President’s tactic without recognizing the sexual politics of the patriarchal military strategy. No, registration is not the “ultimate goal.” And even if one thinks it is, that’s no justification for totally refusing to deal with the sexual politics at play.

Today’s feminist movement was weaned on fighting sexism in the anti-Vietnam War movement and has little tolerance for a repeat performance of male chauvinism. If the feminist movement isn’t approached with due respect, if there’s no sensitivity to sexism or the need for affirmative action programs and mail-dominated groups on the Left, or if the women’s movement is simply viewed as a source of “recruits” instead of allies, then the anti-draft movement should expect little substantive support from the feminist community. If women are not to be alienated by the anti-draft movement as they were in the late 60s and early 70s, the new anti-draft movement must display a genuine sensitivity for feminist concerns and avoid using “the woman issue” form near tactical advantage.

The lawsuit [decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 as Rostker v. Goldberg] filed in Philadelphia by Donald L. Weinberg with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which almost caused the delay of male registration was a good example of this type of maneuvering. It charged that “exempting” women discriminates against men. The sinister irony of the Philadelphia lawsuit is that it relies upon sexual discrimination for success, while espousing the doctrine of equal rights. Isn’t it contradictory that a group which aims to stop the registration of men advocate the registration of women in the name of equal rights? How different was this ploy from Carter’s, which was accurately decried by progressives as opportunist?

The lawsuit is a “no-win” venture. Pawning their politics for a quick fix, they showed their political naivete. There are no such easy victories in reality. There’s no way such a tactic would prevent or significantly alter war, if war itself were acceptable.

The net effect, then, is the same as Carter’s: The suit furthered confusion in the anti-draft movement, capitulation in the women’s movement, and a wonderful advantage for the right wing. In isolating discrimination from its social and political context, Weinberg and the ACLU strengthen the illusion that they can be so isolated. In doing so, they revealed a lack of understanding of the complex dynamics of discrimination.

Selective Service discrimination against men will not be remedied by further eroding women’s rights. It is the draft itself which is unconstitutional - not just its restriction to men. Strategically, those who were concerned about equality and discrimination should recognize that the inevitable result of any act which gives more power to patriarchy is heightened inequality.

Gloria Steinem, the National Organization for Women, Bella Abzug, and other mainstream feminists who see “equality” as making it in the system, were among those who have also taken positions against the draft, but for the registration of women. Said Steinem, “Women ought to have the right to decide for themselves whether to register or not.”

“Women are not looking for special privileges,” Bella Abzug told members of Congress last February. “If we have registration, then clearly both men and women should be registered.”

I disagree. We are not talking about privileges. It is our right to refuse to lay down our lives in defense of a document which doesn’t even recognize our existence. It is our right to refuse to kill. It is our right to refuse to work for an unequal opportunity employer. And it is our obligation as feminists to uphold these rights, not just as individuals but on behalf of our sexual class.
Despite allegations by most of the publicized contenders in the debate around military registration of women that their positions reflect the best interests of our sex, I don’t think they do. Barbara Deming is one of the few exceptions.

“We are demanding equal rights under the law,” Barbara and a number of other Florida women wrote in a letter to NOW President Ellie Smeal, published in Seattle, Washington’s pacifist news letter. “In point of fact, if women were drafted we wouldn’t even have been given un-equal rights. We have no voice at all (have even less of a voice than most men have) and the decisions as to whether or not war will be waged. We are also especially vulnerable to sexual harassment in the military - is women who have enlisted have been finding out. A job in the military one can’t quit at will. We must at least demand the right to choose or not choose such service. As draftees, we would suffer a double servitude - like men, treated by the state as though it had a right to our bodies, but also treated by the men who would be our fellow slaves as though they had a right to our bodies too.”

We’ve served men for centuries. We’ve died for them, and defended them, and receive their violence, and now we’re being asked to do it again. What is women’s liberation about if not the refusal to serve men any longer?

A Pacifist-Feminist Response

Response to the proposal that women be drafted demands an integrated analysis of the war drive, feminism, and the notion of equality. It demands a radical approach, that is, one that gets at the very root of the problem: a pacifist-feminist response.

But when feminists oppose the sex role divisions and inequality inherent in the rule of male might, we are told by some in the anti-war movement that equality would be more difficult to win if there is a war (between nations) and that we should redirect our energy to that front. But is it not also true that lasting peace will never be won without equality? What is the demand “No War!” if not the cry for an end to its root causes - exploitation of people and natural resources where there should be nurturance, and competition among people and nations where there should be mutual aid, cooperation, and respect? On what vision do we base our demands if not to enhance the quality of life for all people, especially the most needy? Are these not common points of our two movements? We cannot separate feminism from the desire for peace in formulating positions on drafting women. The two are integrally connected.

Carter’s gesture was yet another contribution to lock us into the Age of Masculine Violence where rape is so insidious as to be the underpinning of all society. So advanced is the ideology that Carter’s liberal camouflage succeeded in disguising the contradictions of women going to battle for a country which is itself at war with women.

Displayed, and to some extent because, the U.S. owns the world’s largest military arsenal, purportedly to protect its citizens, women in this country remain unprotected from the violent expressions of sexism we face constantly. Every three minutes a woman is beaten by her male partner - a man who often claims to love her. Every five minutes of woman is raped, and they call that “making love” too. And every ten minutes a little girl is molested, sometimes by a relative, perhaps her own father. Films featuring actual rape and murder - not acting - are popular and considered “adult entertainment.” Twenty-five percent of Native American women and an equivalent percentage of Puerto Rican women have been sterilized, many unknowingly, or against their wills. That these tragedies are so overlooked and unappreciated as the horrible acts of war they are is testimony to how much damage has already been done in the hearts and minds of people.

The violence of war is intimately connected to the violence of rape. After then President Lyndon Johnson ordered North Vietnamese PT boat bases and oil depots bombed, he bragged to a reporter, “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.” This mentality exists in the highest echelons of government; imperialism and war are international expressions of male supremacy.

Through its adjective, “rapacious,” rape has also come to mean “living on captured prey.” Today’s patriarchy becomes the rule of rapists. Mobile, Exxon, Westinghouse, and their corporate brothers all stand guilty. Their violence, lies, deceit, manipulations, exploitations, violations - all part of the act of rape; our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our planet - all victims.

As feminist, we have committed ourselves to working for self-determination for all women. That means opposing all colonial policies, all conditions were the strong subjugate the week. We must oppose our own country when it holds power over “underdeveloped” nations, knowing that it is an extension of man’s domination over women. We can no more kill an Iranian sister because our patriarchal political leaders tell us she and her country asked for it, than we can stand the rape and killing of an unknown sister down the block because your rapists says she asked for it.

We cannot forsake women’s liberation by accepting patriarchy’s interpretation of “equality.” For accepting equality to be like them ensures that we will never be ourselves, for we would have legitimized their authority. They would retain their power, and equality demands the abolition of power relationships in which one group dominates the other. To establish more equal relations between the sexes, “rather than women being trained to kill,” wrote Helen Michalowski (WIN, 3/1/1980), “let men learn to learn to nurture life.” [“The Army Will Make a ‘Man’ Out of You,” reprinted in Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, New Society Publishers, 1982.]

True unity between the feminist and anti-war movements has at its roots the common goal of a society where personal and social relations are governed by nurturance, mutual aid, cooperation, and respect. These are the prerequisites for a society free of sexism, racism, and war.

By taking a position against registration for women, we are challenging patriarchal control. We are challenging the myths that the kind of equality being offered to us comes anywhere close to our pacifist-feminist goals.

Feminist poet Karen Lindsey wrote in the Boston women’s news journal, Sojourner, “We are women who say no to the patriarchy and to all of its institutions… We will be accused by the pro-draft liberals and anti-draft conservatives of being cowards and hypocrites. Well, we’ve been called bitches and shrews and castrators and tramps and harpies and frigid and unnatural and ugly and hysterical and manhating and a lot of other words they think will make us cringe back into submission, and we’ve survived.” [See also Karen Lindsey, “Women & the Draft,” speech as a member of Women Opposed to Registration and the Draft (WORD) at anti-draft rally in Boston, 15 September 1979, reprinted in Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence, New Society Publishers, 1982.]

[Donna Warnock worked with Feminist Resources on Energy and Ecology (FREE) in Syracuse, NY, a national clearinghouse on pacifist-feminist issues. Originally published in WIN, the magazine of the War Resisters League, 15 October 1980. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.]

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