Why have women been barred from registering with the Selective Service System, and why is this issue being reexamined now?

dorit gevaDorit Geva 
Central European University

Although there was brief consideration of drafting women nurses during WWII, women have never been required to register with the Selective Service System, and have never been drafted. However, women have been actively recruited into the All Volunteer Force (AVF) since the mid-1970s.

Commitment to maintaining a male-only draft system was reaffirmed in 1981 when the Supreme Court determined that women cannot register with Selective Service. President Jimmy Carter had requested in 1980 to renew draft registration, and to incorporate women’s registration. This prompted Congress to hold hearings on women’s registration, at the end of which Congress determined that, “a male-only system best serves our national security.” Many members of Congress were disturbed by the effect women’s registration could have upon the American family. However, the final formal argument against women’s registration was that since women were barred from combat positions, registering women would place an unreasonable administrative burden on the military, and would decrease military flexibility.

In response to the renewal of a male-only registration, three male plaintiffs filed suit in Pennsylvania, claiming that all-male draft registration was unconstitutional on the grounds of sex discrimination. They had at their disposal a new legal architecture to make their case. Just a few years earlier, the judicial doctrine of intermediate scrutiny was fully articulated, which views sex discrimination as a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Since then, a gender-based distinction within state and federal law can pass intermediate scrutiny if it, 1) serves important governmental objectives, and 2) is substantially related to achievement of those objectives.

The Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania concurred with the three male plaintiffs that women’s draft registration in fact increased military flexibility and therefore could not pass intermediate scrutiny. Just days before the new draft registration was set to start, the District Court ruled that male-only registration was unconstitutional.

The Selective Service System’s Director, Bernard Rostker, quickly appealed the District Court’s decision so that male-only registration could proceed, and the Supreme Court reviewed the case in Rostker v. Goldberg in March 1981.  Persuaded that male-only registration passed intermediate scrutiny, the Supreme Court overturned the District Court’s decision in June 1981.  The Supreme Court accepted that the primary purpose of draft registration was to draft soldiers for combat service. Given that women were barred from combat service, and given that Congress had determined that the prime purpose of registration was furnishing combat soldiers, the Court deferred to Congress and accepted that women’s registration would be “positively detrimental to the important goal of military flexibility.” Male-only registration therefore passed the test of intermediate scrutiny.

The legal grounds for male-only registration have rested until now on women’s combat exclusions. Now that those exclusions have been eliminated as of December 2015, constitutional, and policy-related, concerns are being raised regarding persistence of male-only registration and whether it can continue to pass intermediate scrutiny. The question remains, would women’s integration into the Selective Service System be a welcome development?


Dorit Geva is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University. She has written comparatively about the United States draft system in her book, Conscription, Family, and the Modern State: A Comparative Study of France and the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and in several journal articles, a list of which can be found here. She can be reached at gevad@ceu.edu, and her Twitter handle is @socioeurope

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4 thoughts on “Why have women been barred from registering with the Selective Service System, and why is this issue being reexamined now?

  1. Very interesting article. I suppose one response to your final question would be: the Selective Service System is flexible by nature in terms of whom it recruits into service based on their family commitments, among other considerations (as you pointed out in your first post), and that flexibility is already well enough established to handle the addition of women. Women would simply be given exemption from service (supposing there was ever another draft) on a case-by-case basis, taking their family committments or other special considerations into account. And since women do now occupy combat positions, there would not be any extra burden placed on the military. Problem solved?

    1. You can see my thoughts about this question in the next post. I believe that the case-by-case decisions would often reproduce outmoded ideas about women’s appropriate roles in family, work, and public life. This would intersect with racist and heterosexist assumptions about whose family and work commitments would be valued more, thereby determining who would be deferred from service, or selected for service. This had already been the case with men’s draft classifications up until 1973 (which I point out in the previous post). Without a fundamental reform of Selective Service’s organization, we can expect the same sorts of deliberations and unequal outcomes if women were to register and undergo classification.

  2. Now that the Department of Defense has officially opened all combat jobs to women, the requirement for women to register for the Selective Service — the draft — is likely inevitable.  

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