WASHINGTON — A measure that would make young women eligible for the military draft that is moving through Congress and could become law soon is stirring up a long-standing debate about the role of women in the military.
The provision that would require college-aged women to sign up for Selective Service is included in the annual defense spending bill that passed in the House and is up for a vote in the Senate this week.
Critics of the measure argue that it is largely a hollow gesture, because the military draft has been dormant for nearly five decades. But they say that if the federal government were to reinstate the lottery system, women should not be forced into going to war.
Defenders of the policy change say that while a draft may never again be used, Selective Service is one of the last remaining areas in federal law where there is not gender equality for women.
“This is a piece of being a citizen, of being a complete citizen. And when we talk about the real, like normative change in women gaining access to more aspects of power, this cannot be understated,” said Kyleanne Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the United States Air Force Academy.
Support for expanding the military draft to women does not fall neatly along partisan lines.
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa is for it. Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley is against it. Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania and Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida led the effort to make women eligible for the draft in the House version of the defense bill.
“Nobody is ever going to get drafted, so it doesn’t matter,” said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and security policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “So other than people really paying attention to this, politicians don’t think they’re paying a very high price for doing this.”
Carafano opposes the measure and said that if there were a national focus on it, the public would be in more of an uproar over the issue.
“This is largely being hoisted on the American people without a real national debate. I don’t remember anybody running for president, I don’t remember anybody running for Congress or the Senate saying, ‘I’m going to draft your daughters,’” Carafano said. “My guess is if we had a national debate about drafting your daughters that a lot of people wouldn’t like it.”
The White House declined to say where President Joe Biden stands on the issue in response to repeated requests for comment from McClatchy.
A statement of administration policy on the House bill that the Office of Management and Budget released earlier this year said the administration supports a registration requirement “for all citizens, which further ensures a military selective system that is fair and just.”
When the issue came before Congress during former President Barack Obama’s administration, when Biden was vice president, the White House released a statement in support of Selective Service to include women. That measure was approved by a House committee, but then was stripped from the bill.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Democrats expect to approve the defense bill in the Senate before Thanksgiving. “Obviously we haven’t used the draft for a very long time and there’s no indication that we’re going to,” he said. “But obligations should be shared.”
The Military Selective Service Act currently refers to “male” persons between the ages of 18 and 26 who are living in the United States.
Advocates pushing for a policy shift who sought to bring a case before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year argued that the law violates women’s rights. The court declined to take up the case on the grounds that Congress may legislate Selective Service for women.
An Ipsos poll from August found that 36 percent of women want to see the draft expanded. It also showed support from 45 percent of all Americans, including women, in a steep decline from 2016 when 63 percent supported the measure.
Bigger pool of talent
During former President Bill Clinton’s administration, women were first allowed to serve in certain combat roles, such as flying fighter jets. The Department of Defense has since removed gender restrictions from all combat roles.
Ernst, who was deployed to Kuwait during the Iraq War as a member of the Iowa Army National Guard, says that now that all military positions are open to women, the draft should be too.
“I think to continue to have a robust selection of talent and abilities, we need to make sure that women are eligible for the draft as well,” Ernst said. “I don’t know that we would ever use it, but I think that it’s just right that we open it up.”
Hawley is hoping to stop the provision from becoming law. He has made several statements about the role of traditional masculinity in society — which he defines as traits like courage, independence and assertiveness.
His sister served in the Navy as a doctor. But he said there is a distinction between allowing women to volunteer for combat roles and requiring women to serve.
“Men traditionally have had the responsibility to fight even when they don’t want to do so, I think there’s something to that,” Hawley said. But he called requiring women to do the same “a mistake.”
His amendment has picked up five Republican co-sponsors, including Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Experts say that if expanding the draft becomes law, young women should not panic. The national draft has not been used since the Vietnam War, and the law change may not go into effect immediately.
Once they get over the “initial shock” they will find that “it’s not going to impact” their daily lives, said Hunter, who is a Marine Corps combat veteran.
Rachel McCaffrey, an Air Force veteran and executive director of Women in Defense, supports Selective Service for women — and says that giving the military a bigger pool of talent to choose from will be important if the United States does need to activate the draft for a future war.
McCaffrey said a future conflict would most likely take place in cyberspace and women with degrees in computer science could be called on by the military for compulsory service.
“It makes the most sense, from a military perspective, to make available 51% of the talent in the nation,” she said. “It seems a little bit like a no-brainer, especially given the most likely way that war or conflict will be fought in the future.”
Francesca Chambers, Daniel Desrochers, McClatchy Washington Bureau. McClatchy White House Correspondent Bryan Lowry contributed reporting.