A Twist in the Fight for Women in the Military

One Republican’s attempt stop the integration of women into the military might end up making them eligible for the draft.

Tami Chappell / Reuters

Last week a Republican congressman took a stand against the integration of women into the military. It backfired spectacularly.

California Representative Duncan Hunter proposed an amendment that would expand the Selective Service, which requires all American men ages 18-25 to sign up for the draft, to include women. Hunter designed the measure to fail, in order to prove that proponents of integration are merely posturing on the social issues they claim to champion. He introduced the amendment, in his word, “regretfully.”

So oddly enough, when the amendment passed, it passed without the support of its sponsor, who exhorted his colleagues to consider the unacceptable reality of women in combat and vote down his measure. But it passed nonetheless, in part due to the support of a critical mass of Hunter’s fellow Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. The legislation it amended, the omnibus funding bill that determines the size and shape of defense spending for the upcoming fiscal year, passed the committee by a vote of 66-2, sending on to a likely victory in a vote on the House floor. And now women are on their way to being eligible for the draft for the first time in American history.

Hunter’s blunder is sure to chagrin his fellow opponents of women in the combat arms, who appeal partly to their conviction that a coed force will be less effective, but more passionately to the idea that the changes represent a sort of breakdown of the chivalric code in society. For them, the idea of women serving in combat roles in the military—much less being eligible for the draft—is one more proof that a nefarious form of political correctness is forcing society to break with a longstanding status quo. The sight of liberal social values intruding on a space as sacred as military policy can provoke a particularly intense reaction. “If a day were to ever arrive where the U.S. military depended on female combatants in order to win a war, the United States has already lost its most important battles. A nation relying on female combatants is a nation that has been brought to its knees by political correctness,” wrote Andrew Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission back in February.

On its own, the measure’s passage looks like a quirk of the House—where if you believe something is wrong strongly enough, you propose that its opposite become law. With no active draft, nor any immediate prospect of its being reinstated, it has little direct consequence. But it does reflect a broader shift.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced in December, 2015, that he was opening all military jobs, including combat roles, to women. The announcement was the biggest moment in a long fight over gender integration in the armed forces—an issue that, as Representative Hunter now knows, can be politically unpredictable. For proponents of women in service, Carter’s announcement was a capstone victory in the bitter struggle to overturn hundreds of years of accepted wisdom that women couldn’t stand up to the rigors of combat and that co-ed fighting forces are less effective. These proponents saw in their success the proof that history bends towards justice. But the fight for integration hasn’t arced smoothly; it has proceeded veeringly, by lurches and leaps, often taking a step back for every two it takes forward.

Allowing women to serve more equitably in the military has been one of the biggest and yet least-heralded liberal victories in the culture wars, perhaps because the left either doesn’t feel a sense of ownership over military issues or because it doesn’t want to. But the change has been astonishing in both its speed and its scale. It was less than 20 years ago that G.I. Jane was in theaters, its very name teasing the outlandishness of the idea of a woman making it into an elite combat unit. That’s the span—less than two decades—that it took for women in combat to go from Hollywood drama to an almost unremarkable reality.

With the integration of the combat arms, the Selective Service issue was bound to come up. That’s because, if everyone is eligible to volunteer to serve in combat regardless of gender, then it follows logically that everyone should be eligible to be conscripted into combat, regardless of gender. Indeed, in a 1981 Supreme Court case, the justices ruled that the gendered Selective Services policy was not a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause specifically because women were ineligible for combat jobs. It follows that if women can serve in combat roles, either everyone should have to register to be drafted, or else no one should.

Hunter recognized that the status quo—a gendered draft and an integrated force—is untenable. He might have proposed ending Selective Service registration,  since the draft hasn’t been activated since 1973. Instead, he tried to roll back the Pentagon’s push for gender equity.

Hunter plainly hoped that by pressing people to think about whether they could really live with the consequences of a co-ed military, he might expose the thinness of the whole integrationist project:

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. Neither one of them. Because, again, a draft is not to do with mode of transport, supply, or finance, a draft is there to put bodies on the frontline to take the hill… It’s to get more people to close with and destroy the enemy through fire and close combat. 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 even said that he could stomach the notion of his son being conscripted to go off to fight and die, but not his daughters. But his colleagues, to his evident surprise, disagreed.

California Democrat Jackie Spier called Hunter’s bluff. “I actually support your amendment and will be delighted to vote for it,” she said. “While you may be offering this as a gotcha amendment, I would suggest that there’s great merit in recognizing that each of us have an obligation to be willing to serve our country in a time of war.”

Including women in the Selective Service, and in any future draft, is a radical change of policy, and it’s not clear that it will make it into law. The bill is awaiting a vote from the full House; it also needs approval from the Senate, before it’s sent to the president for a signature or veto.

The bill is embroiled in controversy, but the draft amendment is the least of it. Congressional hawks are trying to stop military base closures by taking funds from the budget for foreign wars, effectively gambling that their colleagues and the White House will top up those funds when they inevitably run dry before the end of the fiscal year. Chairman Mac Thornberry didn’t even mention the amendment in his press release about the bill. Consider what that means: There’s nothing to indicate that the expansion of the draft to include women for the first time in history won’t make it through, other than than the prospect of being struck down as collateral damage in a different fight.

Meanwhile, on the same day the congressional drama was unfolding and without much fanfare, America’s first female infantry officer, Army Captain Kristen Griest, passed her qualification course. She’s expected to take command of an infantry unit next year.