Women should have to register for military draft too, commission tells congress

“If the threat is to our very existence, wouldn’t you want women as part of that group?”

Army cadets sort the spent shells and machine gun links collected after a training exercise, at Fort Benning, near Columbus, Ga. Melissa Golden/The New York Times

Women have been serving in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, helping to sew uniforms, heal the wounded and, eventually, fight in combat. But they have never been required to register for a military draft.

That could soon change. Under a new recommendation to Congress by a national commission, all Americans ages 18 to 25 — and not just young men as currently covered by the law — should be required to register with the government in case of a military draft. The move sets up a debate over a divisive issue that has been simmering for years.

The question of whether to expand draft registration to women was among the most contentious issues considered over the past two years by the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, a bipartisan group that was appointed by Congress to address the issue of conscription. The commission is set to release it recommendations to Congress on Wednesday.


Though no one has been drafted into military service in more than 40 years, the commission’s report will recommend that the United States keep a draft option in place as a “low-cost insurance policy against an existential national security threat,” said the group’s chairman, Dr. Joseph Heck.

In a significant departure from decades of practice, the report will also recommend that young women should be required to register with the Selective Service System, the independent government agency that maintains a database of Americans eligible for a potential draft. “This is a necessary and fair step,” the report says.

Should Congress adopt the recommendation, it would mean that women ages 18 to 25, like young men, would be asked to register when they sign up for a driver’s license or apply for federal financial aid. But the modern day military is an all-volunteer force, and no one can be required to serve unless a draft is enacted, a step that would require an act of Congress and approval by the president.

“Women bring a whole host of different perspectives, different experiences,” said Debra Wada, a former assistant secretary for the Army who served on the commission, noting that being drafted does not necessarily mean serving in combat. As a last resort in a time of national crisis, the government could draft people to a variety of positions, from clerical work to cybersecurity.


“If the threat is to our very existence,” she said, “wouldn’t you want women as part of that group?”

The role of women in the military has been expanding for years. In 2015, the Pentagon announced that it would open all combat jobs to women. Since then, more than 2,000 women have served in Army combat positions, and today, more than 224,000 women serve on active duty.

Once the last combat restrictions on women in the military ended, some military leaders openly advocated for requiring women to register with Selective Service in 2016. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said he supported making the change. The Senate briefly considered requiring women to register with Selective Service but a provision for it was ultimately removed before it reached President Barack Obama.

The recommendations will go to Congress for consideration, though it was not immediately clear when the House or Senate might consider such a measure.


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