> Columns > Boston Globe > Women should be drafted
Women should be drafted
By Cathy Young | February 17, 2003
THE PROSPECT of war with Iraq has sparked a discussion of the possibility of bringing back military conscription. So far, such a move seems unlikely; the only calls for a reinstatement of the draft have come from war opponents such as Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, who argues that war requires ''shared sacrifice'' (and believes that if a draft were in place, our government would be more reluctant to go to war). But the debate about the draft raises a long-overdue question: What about women? Several young people in Massachusetts have recently confronted this issue head-on. In January, 18-year-old Samuel Schwartz of Ipswich, aided by his father, civil rights attorney Harvey Schwartz, filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Boston challenging all-male Selective Service registration as unconstitutional. He has been joined by his 17-year-old sister and two male friends.
All-male draft registration is an issue that has received little attention -- surprising since it is the only instance in which federal law explicitly treats men and women differently. In 1981, the year after mandatory selective service registration for males was reinstated, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law on the grounds that the purpose of the draft was to send soldiers into combat, from which women were barred.
In 2003, the legal and cultural landscape is very different. There are far more women in military ranks, doing a far wider variety of jobs -- including some combat-related ones. In the 1990 Gulf War, women were closer to the front lines than ever before, and were among the casualties of war. Today, women can pilot combat aircraft, serve on combat ships, and command battalions in combat areas. They are still barred, however, from direct engagement with enemy forces on the ground.
Curiously, the debate about women in combat has been framed primarily as a debate about women's rights. Feminists who champion women in the military generally talk about giving women the choice to serve in combat, and talk about career opportunities that servicewomen are denied because of the combat exclusion. Men -- those who volunteer for service under the present system, and possibly all military-age men if a draft is reinstated -- can be required to fight and risk their lives. A young man who does not register for Selective Service theoretically risks prosecution, and forgoes a chance for a student loan.
This paradox has led men's advocates such as author Warren Farrell to charge that feminism seems to give women options without obligations. Male-only draft registration, he argues, is a symbol of the longstanding attitude that men's lives are more ''disposable'' and that women must be protected from harm.
Indeed, some of the opposition to drafting women and putting them on the front lines is explicitly rooted in this chivalrous mentality. In the book ''The Kinder, Gentler Military,'' Stephanie Gutmann warns against trying to override the ''natural law'' that makes men want to protect women and makes societies reluctant to send women to die on the battlefield. Meanwhile, contemporary feminist dogma, fixated on male violence against women, largely avoids confronting the fact that especially in the West, patriarchy has involved not only women's oppression but women's protection.
Those feminists who have honestly confronted this issue have a point when they argue that chivalry is infantilizing. It's no accident that the claim for special protection lumps women with children. In a culture that has rejected the belief that ''natural law'' relegates women to subordination in marriage and exclusion from public life, public policy rooted in the notion that women's lives are more precious than men's is unconscionable.
But the combat exclusion is also rooted in practical considerations. Some leading proponents of women's full integration into the armed services, such as retired Air Force Major General Jeanne Holm, remain skeptical about putting women into physical combat -- primarily because it requires levels of physical prowess most women don't have. Even the weight of the equipment soldiers in ground combat must carry poses a problem for women.
Most military service, however, does not involve direct engagement with the enemy. In Israel, women are currently drafted but serve in noncombat positions. It should be up to the military, based on the needs of national defense, to decide in what capacity women can be best employed. In the meantime, the courts should reject male-only draft registration as incompatible with equal citizenship.