Gender equality is bursting its seams in Sweden, where a proposal was introduced last month to expand compulsory military service to include women.
Sweden is in the vanguard even for considering the measure; it would be only the second country to conscript women, after Israel. But it signals what might happen elsewhere in Europe. It could even extend to the United States, should the US adopt compulsory peacetime service or reinstate the draft. Many people feel that equal rights for women also means equal responsibilities.
While no culture seems ready to force women into combat, armies' increased reliance on high-tech weaponry over brute force is tipping the scales in favor of opportunities for women. In Sweden, known for its progressive social policies, the motivation to conscript women is to promote equality, not to increase enlistment. The country is cutting its armed forces by two-thirds.
"The proposal is that all men and women in the eligible age group would be tested, then [the military] would select those who are best fitted to the jobs, regardless of their gender," says Klaes Jernaeus, spokesman at the Swedish consulate in New York.
Sweden's defense strategy is built on a concept of a "people's defense," where instead of having a professional army, all young men train for military action and then stay in the reserves until age 47.
"There's strong support for this idea of a people's defense based on everyone, with representatives of different classes and backgrounds, so it's a very democratic defense with no feeling that there's an elite," says Annica Kronsell, a political-science professor at Lund University in Sweden.
Women have argued for the right to join the military in Sweden and in other countries in part because of the valuable training and networking that it provides. Women were allowed to join Sweden's officer corps starting in 1980, and all positions were opened to female recruits in 1995. As of 1998, there were 352 female officers, representing just 2 percent of the total.
Optional participation, however, is far different than required military service.
"I think even the women who are very involved in equality issues have taken it a little for granted that men are involved in that sector," Ms. Kronsell says. "This is a little different because it's arguing not to have a right but to have a duty, an obligation."
In Sweden and elsewhere, a strong branch of feminism has long been associated with the peace movement, so it seems contradictory to them to fight for inclusion in the draft. But staunch believers in equality see no way around it if men still have to serve.
"If you're going to argue for equality, it's not fair to say, 'I'd like to have equal wages, but you go out and fight the wars for me,' " Kronsell says.
While Sweden's defense policy does outline procedures to call men to arms in the event of a "surprise attack," any attack on Sweden would indeed be a surprise.
"There's not an issue of throwing their daughters to the lions, because I don't see Sweden being involved in any serious combat operations, and that's got to figure in their decision," says Robert Maginnis, a retired American lieutenant colonel who is now senior director of national security at the Family Research Council in Washington. (Sweden does provide soldiers for UN peacekeeping operations.)
Israel is the only country that currently drafts women, but not for combat positions. Israel's impetus, unlike Sweden's, stems more from military necessity than a philosophy of gender equity. In contrast to Israel, Sweden has no sworn enemies and no standing army. Greece announced in 1997 - before its dtente with Turkey - that it would experiment with conscripting women, but after intense opposition, the proposal never took hold.
Surprisingly, it is men who have been raising the issue of female conscription in Europe. In Germany, men have initiated reverse-discrimination cases arguing that men should not be singled out for military duty.
If compulsory military service were to be required in the US, observers speculate that women might have to be included.
"Despite the fact that I'm against conscription, I'd want it to be gender-neutral," says Alice Kessler-Harris, a professor of history in Columbia University's Institute for Women and Gender Studies.
"I don't think we can have it both ways. If we want all of the benefits, we have to pay the price, and this is one of the prices."
A 1982 US Supreme Court decision confirmed that only men are required to sign up for the Selective Service, but that decision is already seen as behind the times.
"Today if a male contested that women don't have to enlist, I think the Supreme Court would have to overturn its 1982 decision," Mr. Maginnis says, since so many positions don't require hand-to-hand combat.
The official position that the National Organization for Women adopted 20 years ago is that they "oppose any registration or draft that excludes women as an unconstitutional denial of rights to both young men and women." In Sweden, where the possibility is much more imminent, polls are showing that 70 percent of women don't like the idea.
"I might be out on a limb here, but there's still an attitude that it's a man's job. Sweden, apart from Stockholm, is still traditional," says Lars Andersson, a retired Swedish lieutenant colonel who now lives in a small fishing town. "And I think women feel that they have enough with child-bearing and -raising without being called to compulsory service."
Not all women would be called, just as not all men are called anymore. Under the new reduced force, only about 18,000 conscripts are trained, out of 50,000 eligible young men each year. Adding women would double the number of 18-year-olds tested, but would not change the number who are chosen to serve.
"The principle of it I'm for, that both men and women would be included," says Anne Ljung, a former administrative officer in the Swedish Ministry of Defense. "But at the same time, you can't defend it today from an economic or administrative point of view because of the cost and time that go into the testing procedure - that's a large undertaking for the sake of equality."
The supreme commander of Sweden's Armed Forces has said that including women may be a good idea in principle, but "he's not convinced it's the right time just now," according to Tor Johansson, a military spokesman in Stockholm.
As is the custom in Sweden, the proposal is now being sent for consideration to dozens of organizations, trade associations, and other groups meant to broadly represent the public's concerns and opinions.
A political adviser says Prime Minister Goran Persson is in favor of women's participation in the military, but would not comment while debate is under way.
For the measure to go into effect, the Swedish Constitution would have to be changed, since it now forbids gender discrimination except in the cases of military service or affirmative-action measures. That would require parliamentary approval both before and after the next general election in 2002.
Despite the seemingly radical nature of the proposal, Swedish reaction has been low-key.
"We're used to ideas like this popping up now and then," Mr. Andersson says. "Especially in equality matters, which is one of the major functions of Swedish politics."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society