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Despite a defeat in Congress, advocates say they'll keep pushing for women to register for the draft

A photo of people in military uniform standing around a table with a few seated people. The table is strewn with papers.
Seaman Leif Herr Gesell
/
WSHU/U.S. Navy
Lt. Cmdr. Janet Pesane of NMCB 18 addresses a group of assembled Chief Petty Officers and Seabees during a meeting of Women Mentoring Women. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

It was the closest the country has come to requiring women to register for the Selective Service: both the House of Representatives and the Senate Armed Services Committee had approved the historic change as they debated the annual defense spending package for 2022. Then it was stripped out during closed-door negotiations.

The Selective Service is one of the last pieces of federal law where men and women are not treated equally. Men are required to register once they turn 18, meaning they could be forced into the military if Congress and the President ever reinstate the draft.

For now, women are not required to sign up. But support for changing that has united unlikely political allies. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a member of the Armed Services Committee, called it a gender equality and a national defense issue.

“To say, ‘Only men are needed,’ in that moment of a national emergency, is outrageous and obscene,” Gillibrand said at a news conference on Dec. 8. In a statement she said she’ll continue to pursue “all legislative routes to implement this policy” — whether that’s through annual defense spending or a standalone bill.

Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is an Army veteran, also backs the measure. Ernst said a draft is very unlikely and the all-volunteer force is preferable, but women would be essential in any future conflict. She said women wouldn’t necessarily be fighting on the frontlines.

“She could choose to serve in the infantry if she met the standard,” Ernst said. “She could also serve in a cyber unit, where she is sitting behind the lines where she's safe, but certainly working to disrupt the enemy. All of these jobs are important.”

The call to include women in the Selective Service has picked up steam as women have expanded their footprint in the military, intensifying six years ago when women were allowed to serve in combat roles. While Congressional Democrats are largely united on the issue, Republicans are split.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said at a September meeting of the House Rules Committee that women would be unfairly disadvantaged if forced to fight.

“Men and women are not physically the same,” Greene said. “And women do not possess an equal opportunity to survive on the battlefield in direct combat with battle-hardened men. And I can say that as a woman who can deadlift 300 pounds, can do more pull-ups than anyone else in this room and run faster than any of you.”

Other critics say women play important roles on the home front during war, like raising families.

The push to require women to register with the Selective Service reflects a report last year from a commission created by Congress. It recommended Congress keep the Selective Service in place as a last resort in case the U.S. ever faces a threat too big for the all-volunteer military to handle, and that women should also be required to register.

Former Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), the commission’s chairman appointed by Congress, said if the country ever needed to draft service members, the pool of qualifying young people isn’t exactly overflowing.

“Seventy percent do not meet the standards, whether that’s due to mental health issues, drug use, height/weight issues, poor physical performance [or] poor academic performance,” Heck said.

With the provision now stripped from the defense spending bill, Heck said Congress shirked its responsibility.

“[The] commission returned a report with a recommendation that both houses accepted in their respective drafts, only to have it taken out as a political maneuver,” Heck said.

Meanwhile, some feminist groups are calling on Congress to dismantle the Selective Service System all together. CODEPINK is an antiwar group that formed in 2002 during the runup to the Iraq war. National Director Carley Towne said supporters of expanding the Selective Service use “false feminist language.”

“It's premised on the idea that gender equality means expanding the opportunity for women to be coerced into joining the U.S. military,” Towne said. “Our take is: abolish it for everyone. That is true gender equality.”

This summer, the Supreme Court rejected a case that argued the all-male Selective Service is discriminatory. The justices said the issue was for Congress to decide. Former Congressman Joe Heck hopes the Supreme Court will now revisit the issue.

“I think now the case is rife to go back and petition the Supreme Court to say: ‘Congress refused to act. Now what are you going to do?’”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.