Selective Service Is an Obligation of Citizenship, Including Women

Women can now serve in combat, so they should have to register for the draft.

Lance Corporal Kristi Baker, 21, US Marine with the 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II patrols in the bazaar with other Marines in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, Nov. 20, 2010.
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Rachel Natelson is the legal director of the Service Women's Action Network.

At first glance, a debate on Selective Service registration for women seems largely a theoretical exercise. After all, the draft is a distant memory for generations of young adults since it was discontinued in 1973, and political realities make its reinstatement a decidedly remote likelihood. However, registration for military service constitutes a potent symbol of the duties of full civic participation for women and an emblem of their equal status under the law.

In a technical sense, Selective Service registration is a necessary corollary to the integration of women into combat units. When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an all-male registration system in 1981, it based its decision on the premise that while the Constitution requires equal treatment of similarly situated groups, the exclusion of women from combat positions indicated that men and women were not "similarly situated" for purposes of the draft. The erosion of this distinction, therefore, should logically yield a comparable alignment of registration standards.

[Read Elaine Donnelly: Drafting Women Will Weaken the Military]

On a deeper level, draft registration implicates the overall standing of women, both within the military and in society at large. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee prior to the enactment of the Military Selective Service Act, the National Organization for Women focused on the potential for exclusion to rob women of a broader right to first-class citizenship. "Because men exclude women here," the group asserted, "they justify excluding women from the decision-making of our nation." President Carter echoed this sentiment, characterizing Selective Service registration as a badge of equal responsibility that would justify full and equal rights.

Decades later, these principles continue to animate discussions around the consequences of lifting the ban on women in combat. At a recent symposium, Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar defended her decision to challenge the combat exclusion policy in court at the risk of potentially subjecting women to the draft. The question isn't whether we want our daughters to be drafted, she explained, but what kind of world we want them to inhabit: one where they're infantilized as passive objects of chivalry or one where they're empowered to achieve their potential as genuinely equal citizens?

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

The impulse to entrust women to the protection of men, meanwhile, ignores the prevalence of gender-based violence, a scourge with particular resonance among military personnel. As advocates for full registration observed over 30 years ago, in a culture of widespread violence against women, the conventional wisdom that women can and should rely on men for protection is increasingly less convincing. If women can't rely on the availability of state protection against violence, it makes little sense to exclude them from civic obligations on the pretext of shielding them from harm.

Finally, expanding the universe of registrants increases the share of the national population with a stake in the activities of the armed forces. Pledging commitment to military service, even in the unlikely event of a draft, is a step towards bridging a growing gulf between the military and civil society. When less than 1 percent of the nation bears the burden of military service and multiple deployments have become the norm, unequal participation undermines popular sensitivity to those who serve. As President Carter reminded a skeptical country on the eve of reinstituting mandatory registration, only equal obligations can deliver equal rights.