Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, a Democrat, has proposed mandating that women register for the Selective Service System, and the Senate has inserted such language into the new defense authorization bill. We’ve seen this before — in the past it was Republicans advocating that same position in 2016. Though the Supreme Court refused to weigh in, deferring to Congress, the commission set to study it again concluded in 2020 that women should register for the draft. Military chiefs are all for it. Men and women across the aisle seem united in their approval of this change.
Clearly this is a change whose time has come, right?
As a feminist, you might think I would be all for this new move. But because I am a feminist, I can see that this change would make an already inequitable situation for women even worse.
Women who volunteer to join the armed forces should absolutely have the right to volunteer for combat military occupational specialists. If a woman has chosen this path and can meet the standards, why would we deny her the right to fight for her country? There is no reason that we should take this choice from her.
But I draw a line at Selective Service — registration for a possible draft of 18- to 25-year-olds. And I draw that line not for the reason tradition would give us: That women are weak or delicate creatures that must be protected. After all, most women in the world are not protected in any sense of the word. Would you enjoy living as a woman in Afghanistan, where 87% of women report having been assaulted? Or in Liberia, where the chance of dying incident to pregnancy is 1 in 8? Most women in poor countries do the lion’s share of the work of the household each day, and are given fewer calories to eat despite the fact that their daily work load forces them to expend far more energy than others in the household, including men. They watch their children die of preventable diseases and malnutrition because the powerful men of the country could not care less about such lowly matters. In truth, if women were weak, delicate creatures, the human race would have died out millennia ago.
No, I do not oppose Selective Service registration for women because of their delicacy. I oppose it because a sex class analysis would reveal that women already sacrifice more for their country than men do, and women should not be asked to bear even more. There should be parity between men and women in the work of protecting our country and giving it a future. Selective Service registration for women would undo that parity, placing an unjustly heavy burden on women, and making their load far heavier than that of men.
What, at a minimum, must a nation have to survive? It must have protection in the form of armed forces whose members are willing to lay down their health and even their very lives, if necessary, to counter threats to the nation’s security. But protection is not enough for a nation to survive. The most expertly protected nation will nevertheless die out in the space of a generation if there is no reproduction. Only through reproduction does a nation have a future.
And reproduction — carried out through the labor and efforts of women — is personally quite costly. Women offer to lay down their health and even their very lives that their nation might have a future in the new citizens brought into the world through reproductive labor. That we have not seen this as a patriotic service on a par with men’s service in combat says more about our society than it says about the reality of women’s valuable service to our country. By the time they reach menopause, about 86% of women in the U.S. have become mothers; far less than half that percentage of men will have served in the military.
Indeed, consider that in the history of our nation, from 1776 onward, more women have died or been seriously harmed in or incident to childbirth than men have died or been wounded in battle. In 2012, when we undertook a “surge” in Afghanistan, 310 American soldiers died, with less than 4,000 wounded. In that same year, more than 700 U.S. women died in childbirth, with another 52,000 suffering a profound bodily harm, such as acute renal failure, stroke, heart failure or aneurysms. The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. is now more than double what it was 30 years ago (it’s now 17.4 per 100,000 and rising).
And this doesn’t account for the “mommy tax” on a woman’s lifetime earnings of having a child, which can amount to more than $1 million. The greatest risk factor for being poor in old age in the United States is to be a mother (and not a father). And the COVID-19 pandemic has made especially clear the profound economic cost dealt to working women — when the nation needed an army of mothers to step up, they did so at great cost to themselves.
These lopsided reproductive burdens and caregiving sacrifices are all but invisible in our society. We have all seen many, many monuments to great generals and unknown soldiers in our land. But there is only one monument — hidden in the backyard of a church in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania — to all of the American women who died in childbirth to give our nation a future. Just one!
This matter strikes close to home for me. A young woman I knew died giving birth to her third child. I cannot forget the sacrifice she made to bring that child into the world. Yet my country does little to formally honor these deaths, for my country is blind to the sacrifices of women that give it a future. Dying in childbirth is somehow “natural,” whereas dying in battle is “glorious.” How sightless we really are.
And there’s a GI Bill for all the soldiers who volunteered to lay down their health and their lives for their country, so that they are not asked to make both an economic and a physical sacrifice for their people. No such bill for the mothers.
In fact, the pay gap between mothers and childless women is wider than the gap between childless women and men. That’s because, I am told, women choose to have children; no one forced them. Of course, in today’s all-volunteer Army, soldiers also choose to fight for their country; no one forces them. But in our cultural treatment of service members, we somehow have come to esteem a soldier’s sacrifice above that of the blood and sacrifice of a mother, which to my feminist mind is wrongheaded.
We women know that it may be our fate to die for our country’s future, not on some foreign shore, but in labor on a hospital bed right here in the states. Unfortunately, many of our countrymen do not have the eyes to see. One person commented on the Selective Service proposal:
“Until women can be drafted and forced to die in battle just like men have for centuries, we will not have true equality between the sexes.”
Until men can die in childbirth just like women have for centuries, women should not be drafted and forced to die in battle. Such will simply deepen the existing inequality between the sexes.
Valerie M. Hudson is a University Distinguished Professor at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Her views are her own.