By Nancy Thorner & Bonnie O’Neil –
A debate continues within our country as to whether women should serve in the military in positions of combat duty as opposed to nursing and clerical work. Conversations continue as to what positions and specific assignments might be included as standard for women and whether the government should automatically include women in the “draft” process.
The issue first arose in 1945 when Congress was poised to do something previously unthinkable: draft women. There was a pressing need for this change, because the intense Normandy invasion and other WW II military offensives had produced enormous casualty figures. Our Army medical resources were strained to the breaking point, creating an acute shortage of nurses which was said to be jeopardizing the care given to our wounded men.
This prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to use his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1945, to paint a grim picture of the crisis and take the unprecedented step of conscripting women into the military. The army, he said, needed 18,000 more nurses to bring the Army Nurse Corps to a strength of 60,000.
It is important to understand the uniqueness of this specific time in history. World War II was all consuming to our people, the military, and officials, as it personally touched and therefore impacted every one of their lives in some way. The thought of wounded soldiers being unable to receive immediate care due to a severe shortage of nurses was unthinkable and thus received support it might not have had in less urgent times.
The Senate Military Affairs Committee approved a conscription bill on March 28, 1945, and sent it to the full Senate. The publicity surrounding the draft debate spurred enlistments. In the week after Roosevelt’s address, 4,000 nurses applied for army duty—twice the number for the last two months of 1944. Soon thereafter the war seemed to be coming to an end, and thus the issue became less important and less discussed.
May, 1981: Case of “Rostker v. Goldberg”
Fast forward to May, 1981, the war had been over for decades and Americans were now engrossed in their civilian lives but the Supreme Court was now considering whether to compel women to be drafted in the case of Rostker v. Goldberg. At the time Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, and an ally of hers in Congress, Rep. Billy Lee Evans (D-GA), were strongly opposed to the legislation introduced in the 97th Congress, Session 1, H.R. 2791 (Woman’s Draft Exemption Act). They threatened to withdraw jurisdiction from the courts if needed to prevent women from being drafted. The following month a divided Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not compel drafting women, based on the then-existing exclusion of women from combat.
It may be of interest to note that Democrat President Jimmy Carter approved drafting women for the military.
Obama Administration opens military to draft of women
Nearly thirty-five years later the Obama Administration removed the exclusion of women from combat, and some now argue that the Constitution requires that the Selective Service registration apply to women just as it does to men.
In December of 2015, Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reversed centuries of U.S. military tradition with this historic announcement that all military occupational specialties would now be open to women.
“Women will be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars, and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” he stated, provided that the women can meet the same physical and professional standards as men. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force and parajumpers previously open only to men.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was alone among the service chiefs in opposing the total integration of women into the force, was absent from Ashton Carter’s announcement at a Pentagon briefing.
Senator McCain slips in proposal draft for women
Following this change of military tradition, during a closed-door meeting in May of 2016 and without prior notice, Republican Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) proposed legislation as an amendment extending the draft to women into the National Defense Authorization Act (a key piece of military funding legislation) to force 18 to 26 year-old women to register with Selective Service for a possible future draft and to further establish a commission on National Service to explore other options for co-ed conscription. The legislation was meant to be a milestone in women’s equality for the military.
Although House Republicans were successful in stripping the House bill of the provision found in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to include America’s young women in a national military draft, the “Draft our Daughters” provision remained in the Senate’s version of the NDAA.
On November 1, 2016, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a $602 billion defense bill that included an amendment that would require women to register for the draft (known as Selective Service) for the first time in American history.
However, this did not happen without energizing the opposition. In December of 2016 conservatives secured an important victory. 17 Senate conservatives signed a letter, championed by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), advocating opposition to any defense bill that included the “Draft our Daughters” provision. The provision was ultimately removed during conference negotiations, marking an important win for the conservatives.
On December 23, 2016, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, a compromised version which called for a commission to study two related issues: Whether women should be included in Selective Service and whether the Selective Service system itself should be abolished.
President Obama is the first president, since President Jimmy Carter, to endorse universal draft registration for women when they turn 18.
The question now being asked is what impact the election of Donald Trump might have on this issue. Will it influence the discussion within the Commission and/or will their recommendations be compatible with those of Republicans who now dominate the House and Senate? The issue may soon be decided, but history indicates it never seems to be permanently settled. Hopefully, the Commission will enact a “wait and see” policy, because it is far easier to enact a policy than it is to reverse it once in place.