Recent legislative efforts to extend draft registration to young women have raised an old conundrum for some feminists. Does pursuit of gender equality include support for universal conscription?
While not all feminists are anti-militarists, opposition to war and militarism has been a strong current within the women's movement. Prominent suffragists like Quaker Alice Paul, and Barbara Deming, a feminist activist and thinker of the 1960s and '70s, were ardent pacifists. Moreover, feminist critique has often regarded the military as a hierarchical, male-dominated institution promoting destructive forms of power.
In late April, the House Armed Services Committee voted for an amendment to the national defense bill that would extend draft registration -- already a requirement for men -- to women ages 18-26. The amendment was later dropped, but in mid-June, the Senate approved a similar provision in its version of the national defense bill.
Among the amendment's staunchest defenders was Armed Services Committee member Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
"If we want equality in this country, if we want women to be treated precisely like men are treated and that they should not be discriminated against, then we should support a universal conscription," Speier told the political website The Hill in April.
Not all feminists agree with Speier's path to equality. Days after the House Armed Services Committee approved the amendment, 24-year-old Julie Mastrine, an activist and media professional, authored an online petition calling on Congress not to force women to register and instead dump the draft entirely.
Mastrine, a self-described feminist libertarian, argues that draft registration violates individual choice.
"I can't imagine a more tragic loss of liberty than forcing a citizen, whether male or female, to fight in a war with which they may disagree. Equality is a moot point if personal choice and bodily autonomy must first be eliminated to achieve it," Mastrine said in a statement.
In an online editorial for Playboy, Lucy Steigerwald, a contributing editor to Antiwar.com, acknowledged that excluding women from draft registration was "unfair" and "sexist."
"But the solution to the decrepit notion that the young of the country are communal property is not to remove the sexism, it's to remove the draft," she wrote.
Like Mastrine, Steigerwald supports equal access to the military for women, but opposes conscription. She does not believe, as some have argued, that the return of the draft would make the U.S. more cautious about engaging in conflicts.
"You don't stop the runaway truck of U.S. foreign policy by throwing a man in front of it, and you definitely don't stop it by throwing a man and a woman, just to make things equal," Steigerwald wrote.
The linking of women's equality to universal conscription dates back to the early 1980s. Draft registration had ended in 1975 with the conclusion of the Vietnam War. In 1980, a nervous President Jimmy Carter, alarmed over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, reinstated registration to demonstrate U.S. war readiness. Carter actually wanted universal draft registration, but Congress limited the mandate to men.
The male-only system was quickly challenged as sex discrimination. In 1981, a group of men brought a case before the Supreme Court that argued being singled out for compulsory registration violated their right to equal protection. A number of women's groups, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), filed briefs contending that exclusion from the draft violated the constitutional rights of women.
"Compulsory universal military service is central to the concept of citizenship in a democracy," the NOW brief asserted. It predicted "devastating long-term psychological and political repercussions" would result if women were excluded from "the compulsory involvement in the community's survival that is perceived as entitling people to lead it and to derive from it the full rights and privileges of citizenship."
A similar brief filed by 12 other women's organizations, including the League of Women Voters, argued that exempting women from draft registration echoed "the stereotypic notions about women's proper place in society that in the past promoted 'protective' labor laws and the exclusion of women from juries."
NOW had previously opposed the draft, and its apparent about-face infuriated its members at the grassroots level, according to Cynthia Enloe, a research professor of political science and women's studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Enloe, who has written extensively on women and the military, said she was just starting her research at the time, but as she recalls, "The local chapters were really angry. They were full of women activists who disagreed, who saw the draft as something to oppose."
So why the switch? Enloe thinks it had more to do with NOW's then-recent defeat in getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed than it did zeal for military service. The amendment, which pacifist Alice Paul originally penned in 1923, simply states, "Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." After Congress passed it in 1972, NOW led the unsuccessful fight for its ratification at the state level during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Eleanor Smeal, at the time president of NOW, "had just gone through a terrible defeat," Enloe noted. "When the next thing comes up, you tend to see it through the lens of what you were defeated by. The people in the Washington office were terribly affected by the anti-ERA battle."
Speaking in defense of the NOW brief back in 1981, Smeal told The New York Times that wherever she lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment, male legislators frequently said to her, "When you women fight in a war, then we'll talk about equal rights."
That "argument of entitlement," Smeal said, helped persuade her that exclusion from the draft hurt the interests of women. Ever since ancient Egypt, "the secondary class has not been given the right to serve in the military," she told the newspaper.
Lory Manning, a retired U.S. Navy captain, echoes that thought today, noting, "Except for taxes, women have had to fight for the right to the assumption of the duties of citizenship, including jury duty."
A senior researcher at Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), Manning said she remembers well the anti-war feminism of the Vietnam War era, and agrees with its critique of the military.
"It is hierarchical," she said. "It is also very powerful. People think that an organization with that kind of power should not be left to men. Having women on the ground as peacekeepers has shown to improve the fate of women on the other side."
Like many feminists, Enloe thinks it is risky to frame any military issue around just equality. "A lot of feminists were not sure how to articulate their support for gays in the military," she said. "Those against the ban found themselves having to promote gay men and lesbians as the perfect soldier."
It's a dilemma Enloe said her European counterparts do not face.
"While there are many societies which are more militarized than the U.S., militarism has sunk its roots down so deep in U.S. popular culture, it's made a conundrum of how you carve out a space of equality without embracing military ideals of citizenship," she said.
"The acuteness of this political, cultural dilemma is much sharper in the U.S. than in Europe," she said. "European feminists have been surprised at the prevalence of the military's footprint in our civilian settings. Most soccer games in Europe don't start with fighter jet flyovers."
In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a male-only system for draft registration, arguing that since women were "excluded from combat service" they were not "similarly situated" as men for the draft or draft registration. In this instance, the court said, Congress had the authority to consider "military need" over "equity."
With the removal of combat restrictions for women last December, that argument no longer applies. Maria Santelli, at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Conscience and War, said it is quite likely the courts could soon strike down the current male-only system of draft registration on grounds of discrimination. "Before Congress lets that happen, they might vote for universal conscription," she said.
Santelli thinks improvement in equity and justice within the military is a good thing, but these improvements are overridden by the "other justice issue, which is our reliance on war as a means for conflict resolution," she said.
She pointed out that men who oppose draft registration for reasons of conscience face numerous penalties. Under what is commonly known as "the Solomon Amendment," these penalties include denial of federal student loans, federal job training, and employment with federal executive agencies, and denial of citizenship to immigrants. According to the Center on Conscience and War, there are Solomon-like penalties in 44 states, with some denying state employment, state student loans, a driver's license, or photo ID to non-registrants.
"These laws penalize men for the rest of their lives," Santelli said. "Do we want to put women in that same position?"
How soon women who oppose the draft will face the registration dilemma remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the ERA has yet to be ratified.
[Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer, lives and works at the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker of Worcester, Mass.]
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here