Would integrating women into draft registration be good for equality?

dorit gevaDorit Geva 
Central European University

There are three possible outcomes of the current consultation over women’s integration into Selective Service registration: 1) Selective Service remains a male-only institution; 2) Selective Service is modified to incorporate women; or 3) Selective Service is disbanded. Let’s consider the arguments against and for women’s registration

There is merit to the claim that a male-only draft registration is antiquated, hard to justify, and bad for gender equality. There are already voices in Congress, such as Mississippi Republican Senator, Roger Wicker, expressing concern that women’s integration into combat positions will lower military standards across the services (the Marines, Navy, Army, Coast Guard, and Air Force). Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has proclaimed that drafting women would be wrong and immoral.

We will hear many more arguments of this kind coming out of Congress. During the controversy in 1980 following President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to include women in draft registration, Congress was significantly more resistant to women’s integration than the Military Service Chiefs. Once again, recent statements suggest that the Service Chiefs hold more open and pragmatic views regarding the merits of incorporating more individuals, regardless of sex and sexuality, into the armed forces.

Others, like New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, claim that for the sake of full gender equality, women ought to serve too. In a distinct line of reasoning, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Rangel has long argued that Americans would be less hawkish and take more political ownership of American defense policy if daughters and sons across all socioeconomic groups were drafted. Some nostalgically remember their draft experiences as formative in encountering diversity and appreciating the panorama that makes up the American social fabric. Social justice concerns also center on the class inequalities represented in the All Volunteer Force, with a somewhat disproportionate share of professional soldiers coming from lower and middle-income families.

It is hard to justify women’ exclusion from draft registration in this day and age without resorting to reactionary ideas about appropriate gender roles at home and in public life. At the same time, I agree with feminist international relations scholars that we ought to be skeptical of claims that women’s formal integration into military institutions yields gender equality in the military and in society at large. Commentators who support women’s integration into the draft sometimes cite the Israeli military as a model to emulate, where Jewish women are also obliged to serve. Yet research suggests that the Israeli military remains a deeply masculine institution. The gender wage gap in Israel is also very high. Women’s conscription is no silver bullet for gender equality, and can even serve to reproduce traditional gender roles and societal inequality.

However, I believe there is another fundamental problem which needs to be confronted, and which is missed in the typical range of arguments for or against women’s registration. That problem has to do with the peculiarities of the American draft system.

As I have argued before, the Selective Service System has been an especially iniquitous conscription method. It was created, by design, to select some men for service. Countries such as New Zealand and Canada, with a similar conscription tradition stemming from British aversion to universal mandatory conscription, eventually turned to more universal conscription methods – for men – during times of war throughout the twentieth century. However, the United States maintained the structure of selecting only some men for service, and delegated these decisions to local draft boards staffed by civilians with enormous discretion to decide a man’s fate. The classifications and deferment categories can be read as a hierarchy of life that is more and less valued by the federal government and local draft boards.

Additionally, the discretionary nature of local board decisions means that Selective Service has long been a source of institutional racism. If women were integrated into the draft registration process, and if a draft were called one day and more attention were paid to creating racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse draft boards, we still could not expect an equitable conscription system. The discretionary nature of local board decisions would render Selective Service prone to racist, sexist and heterosexist valuations of whose life should be protected versus whose life can be put at risk for the state.

Take a look at the current classification scheme. Imagine that Congress calls for a draft which would include women, and that local draft boards across the country are faced with having to select women and men for service, applying the classification system for doing so. For registrants making a dependency hardship claim (currently Class 3-A), who would be seen as a “real” breadwinner? Who would be seen as “real” caregiver? Who would be seen as being part of a “real” family or a “real” conjugal relationship? Who is a “genuine” parent? Who is a “real” man or woman? Other classification categories are also problematically vague. Who would be accepted as a “true” conscientious objector (Classes I-O and I-A-O), and on which grounds? Who is a “genuine” Minister of Religion (Class 4-D)? By design, local draft board members would make those individual decisions, registrant by registrant, selecting women and men for service. It is very unlikely that these discretionary decisions made by thousands of local boards would yield an equitable system.

Any option which maintains the draft system’s selective and discretionary nature is a bad option. We should debate the merits of a new national service system which incorporates women and men, or maintenance of a strictly professional military – while taking into account the heavy burden of multiple deployment rotations placed on current members of the All Volunteer Force. But the Selective Service System is a bad conscription system and needs to be dissolved.


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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