Reporter's Notebook

Should Women Register for the Draft?
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Readers debate the role of women in the U.S. military and whether they should be allowed in combat units and forced to register for the draft. To join the discussion, especially if you’re a female servicemember, send us a note at

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A reader, Susan Carpenter, raises that question for us:

I’d be fine with drafting women when DoD establishes a credible process for adjudicating sexual assault allegations and demonstrates that it works. The number of women affected by sexual assault to date is horrifying. It’s one matter for women to volunteer; it’s another to compel women under such circumstances.

In 2013, when Congress last gave the issue of sexual assault in the military serious attention, Garance Franke-Ruta provided this snapshot of the problem:

Of 3,374 reported cases of sexual assault in 2012, only 238 convictions were handed down, according to the annual Department of Defense report to Congress released Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s anonymous surveys of members of the military led it to estimate that more than 26,000 women and men were sexually assaulted in the U.S. Armed Forces last year. That number represents a sharp jump from the previous year’s estimate of 19,000 assaults. (In the wake of the growing attention to the problem of military sexual assault, thanks in part to the release of the documentary Invisible War last year, some of that increase may be due to greater willingness of assault survivors to speak up about what they’ve experienced -- something the Pentagon says it wants them to do.)

Here’s a trailer for the film:

Garance gets to the heart of the structural problem:

A woman who is assaulted and wants redress has to report the crime to her commanding officer -- her boss -- and press charges against one of her colleagues in the military, often someone who also works for her boss, all the while continuing to live near her attacker in a thick soup of overlapping interpersonal and professional relationships between her and his friends. The commanding officer, in turn, is held responsible for crimes committed in his unit, and penalized if a flood of reports and convictions come in, as they are seen as a negative reflection on his leadership. And it’s entirely up to him whether or not to push forward with taking a complaint to trail; he also has power to overturn convictions without explanation.

Another reader and ethics professor, Debra, also worries about rape for female servicemembers and conscripts—but from perpetrators outside their ranks:

Stanley A. McChrystal, the former U.S. general, just wrote a piece for us calling for “a service year [that] would teach young Americans tolerance and restore civic responsibility.” (Presumably that service would be compulsory, but he doesn’t say so explicitly.) Money quote from McChrystal:

Presidents since Washington have summoned Americans to serve their country in times of crisis—Washington in the Revolution; Lincoln in the Civil War; FDR in the Great Depression; Kennedy in the Cold War; Johnson in the War on Poverty; Clinton to strengthen community and access to college; and Bush after 9/11. National service and civic engagement are old ideas, but they are in need of renewal. It’s entirely feasible for the United States to create 1 million service-year positions each year by the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026. We should do it.

This reader is onboard:

I agree wholeheartedly with McChrystal. As a veteran, I am flummoxed by the level of political vitriol some people hold. I served next to men and women from all kinds of backgrounds—the children of missionaries with a loose grasp of pop culture, farm kids, young people who’d been homeless before the military, children of hippies rebelling against their parents, people from the island territories, children of influential families, people with political ambition, Muslims, Mormons, atheists, socialists, libertarians, you name it.

We had lots of fascinating discussions on guard shifts in the wee hours of the morning. Our differences were no obstacle to the mission. We worked together regardless. Indeed, we benefited from a variety of perspectives. And we had each other’s backs when our lives were on the line in a war zone.

But I came home to find some people with this notion that their political adversaries were their enemy, that someone with a different perspective must be disloyal to the country, and actively working to undermine it. I just don’t get it.

A few other readers, however, dissent over the idea:

The idea that mandatory national service will bring people together is just not supported by the experience of other countries that have it.

Prince Charles presents Lance Corporal Kelly Barrow with a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Nigel Roddis / Reuters

Reader Alana A. Roberts is very proud of her family members with military service—a sister, brother, husband, and two grandfathers—but she strongly disagrees with the idea of women joining the Selective Service. Her argument is one I’ve never heard before:

Nicholas Clairmont’s piece laying bare the political process behind the effort to make women liable to conscription was interesting. [The subsequent reader note from Susan argued that women have just as much of a national duty to protect their country as men do.] As a 34-year-old mother of a daughter and a son, I oppose this measure so strongly that I’m learning another language in preparation for the possible necessity of taking my daughter elsewhere to avoid the dishonor of her registering for the draft. The reasoning behind my opposition is as follows, although it’s instinctive and (if you will) archetypal rather than rational:

  • Because only women can bear children, and the survival of the nation depends on it, this is an actual duty—not for the individual woman, but for women as a class.  
  • The sacrifice and difficulty of this duty is so great, and the physical courage required so real, and the survival of the nation (and humanity) so dependent upon it, that the duty of childbirth is equal in dignity and weight to the duty to defend one’s nation.

Susan has a strong opening argument in favor of gender equality when it comes to conscription:

I have my Dad’s draft card calling him up for “the duration plus six months,” and it still makes me stop and think. Although I was opposed to the draft during the Vietnam War, when my brother registered with Selective Service in 1971, I argued with my father that women should be subject to the draft as well. (At the time, of course, the roles for women in the military were limited to administrative or medical support, even if you tried to volunteer.) I wanted to be treated equally, and I thought equal rights and equal responsibility went together.

Certainly there are some women not physically capable for ground combat duty, but the same can be said for some men. And in a technology-driven military environment, physical size and strength are not the only determining factors, as proved by our current volunteer military forces.

My belief, then and now, is that the only appropriate use of conscription would be if a fundamental threat to our nation arose. In such a situation, I see no reason why women have less of a duty to serve. And I can’t rationalize the value of a life based on gender.

A female soldier in the Israeli military, which conscripts both men and women, mans a gun. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP)

Over the past few months, Congress has been in the middle of a debate over whether to expand the Selective Service registration requirement to include women in any future military draft. In the latest development, the full House just voted on the idea for the first time after Ohio Representative Warren Davidson attached an amendment to a major government funding bill that would bar the government from paying for the expansion. It passed, causing another setback for supporters of women joining Selective Service:

Some background: Proponents of gender equality when it comes to the draft hold that after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in December 2015 opened up all combat jobs to women, it’s only logical—and only fair—that women should be conscripted alongside men if the draft is ever resurrected. After all, the Supreme Court case in 1981 that upheld the male-only draft did so on the basis that women weren’t eligible for combat roles, and now women are. Plus, there’s a symbolic issue at play: While no one particularly wants to be drafted, supporters argue that there’s value in making clear that women have the same duty to protect their country as men do.

Not everyone in Congress agrees. As Duncan Hunter, a Republican representative from California, said during an Armed Services Committee hearing in April:

I’ve talked to coffeehouse liberals in San Fransisco and conservative families who pray three times a day. And neither group wants their daughter to be drafted. [...] The draft is there to get more people to rip the enemy’s throats and kill them for our nation, sanctioned by the U.S. government. That’s what a draft is for.

Hunter is getting at something that runs culturally deep. It’s why the issue of women in combat is so fraught. The moral stakes of conscripting women to fight and die are high, and this cuts right to some of the themes that drive America’s bitter culture wars: gender roles, patriotism, support for the military, support for actual wars.

Hunter’s quote comes from his ill-conceived attempt to prove that America couldn’t support drafting women. In early May, I wrote about how the amendment to expand the draft came about: Hunter himself proposed it to the House Armed Services Committee—as a bluff, sure that his opponents were all talk. He was convinced that when they faced the gritty reality of women being drafted, they’d see what Hunter regards as reason and vote against what they claimed to believe.

The vote didn’t break his way, and that’s when things went through the legislative looking glass. Hunter’s powerful ally from Texas, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, used his position to go against the will of his committee’s members, killing the measure before it got to a vote on the House floor, where it was predicted to pass. Meanwhile, it passed in the Senate despite some loud protestations from, among others, Ted Cruz, recently back from the campaign trail. As it stands, the two chambers are conferring about how to bring their respective versions of the bills into agreement so that they can send it on to the president.


One of the reasons the debate has been so bitter is that each side assumes the other isn’t playing in good faith, and in a sense the two opponents aren’t talking about the same thing.