'I Twice Shed My Blood in Childbirth For My Country'

Prince Charles presents Lance Corporal Kelly Barrow with a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. (Nigel Roddis / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.
  • Like a soldier in battle, the woman who gives birth must shed her blood to do it. For nine months she donates her blood and bodily substance to the baby growing within her. Osteoporosis, anemia, and other maladies often result—injury and death, occasionally. In the act of childbirth, a woman actually spills her blood.
  • Even women who do not give birth or do not plan to are subject to the physiology adapted for the purpose. Thus women shed blood monthly in a cycle of preparation for pregnancy. Menstruation, awkward as it sounds, is the female draft.
  • This feminine physiology—not merely menstruation but the whole feminine mode of being human—renders military life more onerous for most women than for most men, in ways that are obvious to most people.
  • In nearly all civilizations, the childbearing class is preserved as such by exemption from military duty.
  • Israel’s policy is born out of an unusually necessitous situation: a small country under continuous attack. It is still not ideal.
  • What women desire is the liberty for exceptional women to do things that most women don’t want to do. We do not generally wish to force the activities of the exceptional woman upon the ordinary woman. We feel that the ordinary woman is, compared to the ordinary man, exceptional enough.

If you would like to address that argument, drop me a note and I’ll update. I’ll just quickly point out—because it’s close to home for me—that having children and serving in the military are by no means mutually exclusive; my mother had two sons and a long career in the U.S. Army. When I was born, she left active duty to focus on raising my brother and me but returned after several years and eventually retired as a full colonel, outranking my father. Unlike him, she never deployed to a war zone, but her best friend—a mother of three and high-ranking Air Force officer—did.

If you’re a woman who’s been deployed, especially in a combat unit, and would like to share your perspective, please say hello@. Update from a reader, Rory, who makes an essential point:

The push to register women for the draft is based on the idea that women are now eligible for combat so they should share the load, but the simple fact is only a minuscule number of women would ever be able to contribute in a combat role. In any draft scenario, all that would happen would be that men would automatically be sent to the front lines while women would fill all the support positions.

Women registering for the selective service would only provide an illusion of equality. The politicians will decide the issue based on ideology and gender optics, but I doubt the generals in Washington are factoring women into their contingency war plans.

Just because different people would have different roles in a draft, and because men and women would on average serve in different ways, I don’t think that’s an “illusion of equality.” All Americans would be serving in some way, based on their individual capabilities—just as the draft was done back in the day but with various kinds of men.