Should Women Register for the Draft?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
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.

Enemies of the draft expansion see themselves as defending an old and noble chivalric idea about the male duty to protect—one of the last remaining justifications men have for themselves in modern society. Advocates of the expansion, on the other hand, see it as a way to reify an important conviction that the differences between men and women aren’t substantive enough to mean that the genders should play different roles. Some also see it as a basic issue of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, not to mention a a matter of basic fairness.

When the sides of a debate don’t even agree on what the debate is really about, things tend to get heated. According to one Atlantic reader who supports the draft expansion:

What it’s about is the fact that Hunter really would prefer if women couldn’t serve in many posts at all. He thought the draft threat was enough to get women’s advocates and political representatives to back down on the issues. He completely misread them, as well as women in general. It turns out, women don’t object to women being drafted. Many actually support the idea quite strongly. That was pretty easy to see beforehand, except for those who are really ignorant on the subject.

But it’s not all that simple, according to recent survey summarized by Roll Call:

Women are much less likely than men to say women should be required to register for Selective Service when they turn 18, according to a poll conducted June 18-20 by The Economist/YouGov. Thirty-nine percent of women supported registration for women, compared to 61 percent of men.

It’s impossible to know why this is, but one explanation more or less suggests itself. We are, after all, talking about people being forcibly shipped off to war, and regardless of one’s stance about the principle of the thing, that’s not the most attractive proposition in the world. But as another reader points out:

There is a difference between not personally wanting to be drafted, or not believing in the draft, and not believing women should be drafted simply because they’re women.

Plenty of people twist themselves into knots decrying how horrible it is that some Americans don’t pay taxes or receive government subsidies, but then they always have a reason why industries they’re in should receive help from the government, or why people in their particular situation should receive tax breaks. It’s just as dishonest. Pretending to hide behind some sort of principle just because you benefit in the short term is not being principled.

Should principle guide policy in this case? If so, what principle? To join the debate about whether women should have to register for the draft, and why or why not, send us a note: