Why the Senate voted to include women in the draft

The Senate voted to make draft registration mandatory for women. If approved, it would be another landmark in a year of advances for gender equality in the military.

Tami Chappell/Reuters/File
Capt. Kristen Griest receives a congratulatory hug after completing Ranger school at Fort Benning in Georgia last August. She and classmate 1st Lt. Shaye Haver were the first women to finish the rigorous training. In another move for military gender equality, the Senate this week moved forward a bill that would require all 18-year-olds, male and female, to register for the draft.

Congress is considering a bill that would bring about a major milestone for gender equality in the military.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved a military authorization bill which would require all women turning 18 in 2018 and onwards to register for selective service, known more commonly as the draft. Currently, only men are required to register.

The potential addition of women comes on the heels of the historic removal of all gender-based restrictions from the military, which went into effect at the beginning of this year.

"The fact is, every single leader in this country, both men and women, members of the military leadership, believe that it's fair since we opened up all aspects of the military to women that they would also be registering for selective services," said veteran Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of the senators leading the passage of the bill, according to The New York Times. 

In December, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that US servicewomen were no longer barred from positions on the front lines; they could now hold any position in the military. Later that same day, Senator McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R) of Texas said that Congress' armed services committees would review the decision and revisit the male-only selective service registration.

On Tuesday, a majority of senators agreed that the lift of the combat ban meant that women should also be drafted if need be, approving the measure as part of a military policy bill. That bill will now move into conference committee to be compared with a House version that does not include a female draft.

News of the bill's passage in the Senate was well-received by advocates for women in service.

"Women have an equal obligation to defend the country as men, and until there are equal requirements for men and women, it's going to be very difficult for men and women to achieve full equality in the military," retiring Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Kate Germano tells The Christian Science Monitor. "We see this as a necessary step in that process."

While the bill received bipartisan support in the Senate, it revealed fault lines within the Republican party. Even former GOP presidential nominees have differed, with conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas saying it "makes no sense," while Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said last month that women have "performed exceptionally well" in the military and should be included in the draft.

Since the ban on women in combat was lifted, women soldiers have been requesting transfers that would enable them to lead divisions of the infantry and armor branches, positions from which they were previously barred.

In April, Capt. Kristen Griest became the Army's first female infantry officer. Griest had put in for a transfer from military police to infantry, following the protocol set in place for any officer wishing to transfer branches, Bob Purtiman, a spokesman for Fort Benning, told the Army Times.

Earlier that month, 22 female soldiers transferred into army training programs that would allow them to enter the infantry and armor branches as platoon leaders. Upon completion of those programs they will follow Capt. Griest's footsteps as female combat officers.

Germano, the retiring Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, says that whether or not a draft is actually instated – that hasn't happened since 1973 – gender equality within selective subscription would have a positive impact on the position of women who are currently serving in the military.

Despite official equality, barriers still exist, says Germano, who is also chief operations officer of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). She hopes the advancements in this "banner year" will generate needed scrutiny into military culture and processes that she says still prevent women from receiving equal opportunities for advancement, training, and accountability.

When the draft registration includes women, it will "eliminate any perception that women have preferential treatment," she says, and prove that "women have an equal obligation" to serve the nation.

Officials have considered including women in the draft at several different times in history. In World War II, a shortage of nurses led military officials to consider implementing a draft for women to serve in that role. The issue hit the Supreme Court in the early 1980s, after President Carter reimplemented the registration process that had been discontinued after the Vietnam War. The court ruled in 1981 that it was not unconstitutional to only register men, since women did not serve in all positions.

Retired Navy Captain Lory Manning, a senior fellow at SWAN, sees the Senate vote and potential draft registration requirements as one more layer that has been pulled away as women prove that they achieve on par with their male counterparts.

"I would say that this is the last chapter in a 70-year-long journey that women in the military have been on," she tells the Monitor. "In 1948, women were allowed to serve in active peacetime duty for the first time, but there were many, many restrictions placed on their service over the past 70 years."

She points to how women in service have overcome boundaries each time a new restriction was lifted, despite doubts about their capabilities.

"Every time one layer fell away, they thought, 'This will be the straw that broke the camel's back.' And that hasn't happened. Women have always hacked it, they have always done it, and this is the last step in a journey of many, many steps," she says.

Whether or not the measure is ultimately approved, Manning says it has opened the conversation both about the selective service program in general and women's rightful place within it.

Manning, who was in the Navy for 25 years, muses that the process of registering for the draft may even have an impact on how young women think about service. "It may help young women to think, 'Hey, maybe I should think about the military as a career choice,' just by the mere fact of having to go down to register."

Correction: The original version of this article used the incorrect rank on the second mention of Lt. Colonel Kate Germano. It has been changed. 

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