US women may soon achieve a level of equality not everyone wants – ending 40 years of all-male precedent by becoming eligible to be conscripted in a time of war, writes James Jeffrey.
One of the starkest ways American women have achieved equality with men in the workplace has occurred in the military.
The decision five years ago by then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to open all positions in the armed forces to women – including combat duty – was largely applauded as a necessary step that benefited the military and society.
But this levelling of the military playing field has led to a more divisive consequence – at the end of March the government’s National Commission on Military, National and Public Service declared it is now time that women become eligible for the military draft – the procedure by which individuals are chosen for conscription – just like their male counterparts between the ages of 18 and 25.
Currently, all male US citizens in that age bracket, regardless of where they live, and male immigrants – documented and undocumented – residing within the US, must register through the Selective Service System.
These registrations create a pool of men who could be pressed into service if the US needs tens of thousands more troops to fight a war or if the country faces an existential crisis.
Women have also been serving the US military for generations, from sewing uniforms during the Revolutionary War to nursing the wounded in World War II. But they have never been required to register for the draft, a stance increasingly at odds with the reality of American’s modern military.
“The mere fact that women would have to register would signal a national recognition that everyone is expected to serve if needed and that everyone’s service is valued equally,” says Kara Vuic, a war studies professor at Texas Christian University, who is writing a book called Drafting Women.
Nurses care for wounded US soldiers in Vietnam in 1967
More than 224,000 women are serving in the US military, constituting about 17% of the armed forces’ 1.2m active duty members. More than 2,900 of those women have served in army combat positions since 2016, according to the national commission.
It spent two years conducting dozens of hearings across the country. In its final report it recommended “that Congress amend the Military Selective Service Act (MSSA) to eliminate male-only registration and expand draft eligibility to all individuals of the applicable age cohort”.
The decision could be seen as moot. No one has been forced into military service in more than 40 years since the Vietnam War, mainly thanks to the creation and size of America’s modern-day all-volunteer military force.
But not registering with the Selective Service has implications, including exclusion from student loans or employment for the federal government.
Beyond arguments that the draft change empowers equality between men and women, the commission noted that the US population growth rate is at its lowest in more than 80 years and that seven out of 10 Americans of draft age – both male and female – are unfit for military service.
In 2009, a group of retired US generals and admirals formed a nonprofit group “Mission: Readiness” to draw attention to this growing problem. In their report Ready, Willing, and Unable to Serve, the most common barriers for potential recruits were failure to graduate high school, a criminal record and physical fitness issues, including obesity.
Richard Kohn, professor emeritus of History and Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina, says the US can’t expect to have a first-rate fighting force if half the population is excluded.
“If you want the best human capital in your force you need to include women –