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Congress might require women to register for the draft. Where do Republicans and Democrats stand?

The parties are deeply divided among themselves, aligning in unusual ways.

- November 14, 2021

Should women be drafted? In September, the House of Representatives passed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with an amendment that would require women to register for the Selective Service. While the United States hasn’t drafted anyone to serve in the military since the 1970s, the federal government still requires all men — but not women — ages 18 to 26 to register. Now the Senate is considering the NDAA; the chamber should decide whether to keep the gender change by the time Congress goes into recess on Dec. 11.

For decades, Americans have debated who should serve in the nation’s armed forces, and whether and when there should be a military draft. Our research finds that ideas about who can and should serve in the military generally divide along party lines.

But the debate about whether women should have to register has brought together unlikely coalitions of conservatives and liberals, both for and against the draft for women. Here’s what we found.

The United States might not have a military draft now, but it requires men to register anyway

The United States stopped drafting men into the military in 1973, relying instead on those who choose to join. Since 1980, men have been required to register for the Selective Service, in case the United States reinstates the draft. In 1981, the Supreme Court concluded that women could not register for the Selective Service, because they were not then eligible for military combat roles.

That didn’t change after all combat roles were open to women in 2015. For instance, Elizabeth Kyle-Labell brought Kyle-Labell v. Selective Service System, arguing that she was deprived of the ability to do something on the basis of her sex; the case is pending in a New Jersey federal district court. But similar court cases have failed in the past, as may happen again here.

Americans aren’t particularly in favor of registering women for the draft. This summer, Ipsos found that only 45 percent of Americans favor enrolling women, a smaller proportion than in 2016. That’s tilted by gender: 55 percent of men think women should register, while only 36 percent of women do.

Odd coalitions supporting Selective Service for women

Despite this lukewarm public support, organizations ranging from the more progressive left to the moderate right have been arguing in favor of registering women for the draft. More left-leaning groups tend to emphasize feminist arguments about equality and inclusion. For instance, the ACLU calls the men-only registration “one of the last examples of overt sex discrimination written into our federal law.” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), who introduced the amendment to require women to register for the Selective Service, explained the issue was about equity, noting that “women have constantly had to fight for a level playing field — and this change is a step in the right direction.”

More right-leaning organizations emphasize national security preparedness. And indeed, government reports — such as a March 2020 report from the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service — suggest that including women would deliver national security benefits.

While these right-leaning groups and policymakers haven’t echoed the left’s concerns about equity, they have found common ground by emphasizing the range of skills women bring to the military. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) supports the amendment, emphasizing that the United States would “need everybody” in a crisis requiring the draft.

Similarly, former congressman Joseph J. Heck (R-Nev.) said that including women would help the military maintain high personnel standards and draw on all Americans’ “talents, skills and abilities.” These echo some of Houlahan’s comments noting that including women would boost military skills in “cyber, STEM, and technical talent,” perhaps suggesting that drafting women wouldn’t necessarily mean drafting women into combat roles.

Extreme positions oppose draft registration for women

On the other side, the coalition against registering women for the draft includes far-left and far-right individuals and organizations who have little to nothing in common politically otherwise. On the left, opposition comes from antiwar groups.

For instance, Code Pink opposes drafting women — and the draft entirely — because of its opposition to U.S. militarism. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) echoed this in 2016 when she said, “I’m just against the draft.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) voted no when the 2022 NDAA came before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, but she frequently criticizes the Pentagon and regularly votes against NDAA bills.

Right-wing arguments opposing registering women for the draft have quite different social and cultural grounds. Rep. Mary E. Miller (R-Ill.) of the House Freedom Caucus said the measure is “wrong, and it’s immoral …. our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters should not be part of this draft. This is left-wing, woke agenda gone too far.” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said that it is “crazy” to require women to register for the draft as “part of the Democrats’ ongoing social agenda.”

These arguments are consistent with recent conservative efforts to discredit the military’s top brass as “woke.” These conservatives argue from a quite different view of gender roles, saying women shouldn’t be forced into military service. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted, “America’s daughters shouldn’t be drafted against their will,” echoing Hawley’s tweets.

Some observers point to the bipartisan support and opposition for registering women for the draft. But these are coalitions of convenience, not signals of growing bipartisan cooperation. The more mainstream coalitions supporting the draft might win out, but debates over who should serve — or who should be compelled to serve — will probably continue long after the Senate vote.

Jen Spindel (@JenSpindel) is assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. She is writing a book manuscript about the signaling effects of conventional arms transfers.

Robert Ralston (@RobertJRalston) is a lecturer in the department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.