In the latest and perhaps decisive battle over the role of women in the military, Congress is embroiled in an increasingly intense debate over whether they should have to register for the draft when they turn 18.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved an expansive military policy bill that would for the first time require young women to register for the draft. The shift, while fiercely opposed by some conservative lawmakers and interest groups, had surprisingly broad support among Republican leaders and women in both parties.
The United States has not used the draft since 1973 during the Vietnam War. But the impact of such a shift, reflecting the evolving role of women in the armed services, would likely be profound.
Under the Senate bill passed on Tuesday, women turning 18 on or after Jan. 1, 2018, would be forced to register for Selective Service, as men must do now. Failure to register could result in the loss of various forms of federal aid, including Pell grants, a penalty that men already face. Because the policy would not apply to women who turned 18 before 2018, it would not affect current aid arrangements.
“The fact is,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, “every single leader in this country, both men and women, members of the military leadership, believe that it’s fair since we opened up all aspects of the military to women that they would also be registering for Selective Services.”
Although I’d prefer to get rid of the draft entirely, it seems that what this should be connected to is the revival of the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s still amazing to me that a revived ERA is nowhere to be found in progressive policy goals. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of reading in the last few months on issues around women’s work and protective legislation and it’s eye-opening to learn what a horrible right wing organization Alice Paul created with the National Women’s Party to push for the ERA after 1920. As Nancy Woloch lays out in her recent book, A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s, Paul and the NWP openly worked with the Chamber of Commerce to oppose all protective labor legislation. At first, the opposition was for any protective laws for women, since ensuring that women work only 8 hours a day was seen as the kind of discrimination that would actually hurt women. Paul was wrong about that because protective labor legislation women did far more to open the door for broader labor legislation than hurt women’s ability to make a living, although it did in some industries. But then Paul and the NWP went ahead and also opposed all labor legislation during the New Deal. Frances Perkins hated the NWP and Eleanor Roosevelt would have nothing to do with the ERA. Even after World War II, when protective labor legislation had passed and those battles were no longer so salient, Roosevelt still would not endorse the Equal Rights Amendment. It was really only in the 1970s that the ERA became a relatively progressive movement and even then largely ignored concerns of poor women or women of color in favor of an abstract constitutional amendment.
One of the arguments against something like the ERA was that women could in fact be drafted (others included, for instance, the potential loss of alimony and child support). Of course, women have reached greater equality in the military, so the draft exemption no longer makes sense. Perhaps now is the time for the ERA to be revived.