MASS CONSCRIPTION in wartime is a distant prospect in America. But if a conscription was called, the country’s conscripts could soon be very different. An amendment to the annual defense policy bill that travels through Congress would make women eligible for military conscription for the first time. On September 2, it was adopted by the House Armed Services Committee. “It is high time,” said Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan, a former Air Force officer and main sponsor of the amendment. Coupled with the success of a similar provision in the Senate, the change is now almost certain to become law when the final bill comes to a vote.

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Although compulsory military conscription ended in 1973, controversy over who might be called upon to serve did not arise. Conscription was so unpopular in the wake of the Vietnam War that after 1975 men were no longer even required to register with the selective service, the directory of people eligible for conscription. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 prompted President Jimmy Carter to reinstate the requirement for men, but Congress opposed the potential inclusion of women. The 1981 Supreme Court decision in Rostker vs. Goldberg found that because women were not permitted to serve in combat roles, they could be excluded from selective service. That argument began to sound thin even before Leigh Ann Hester became the first woman to receive the Silver Star for Direct Combat Action in 2005, after her convoy was ambushed in Iraq.

When President Barack Obama opened up the combat roles to women in 2015, the legal logic prohibiting women from participating in the project fell apart. Putting women into action initially met with resistance. Republicans have argued it will undermine the cohesion of the U.S. military, and former generals have raised concerns. But President Donald Trump left the reform untouched and the controversy faded. Katherine Kuzminski of the Center for American Security, a think tank, suggests that women’s experience on the battlefield during the “war on terror” did much to convince the US military that women were essential. With the decision in Rostker a dead letter, legal proceedings have been taken to overturn the exclusion of women. In April, President Joe Biden asked the Supreme Court to allow Congress to resolve the issue.

Capitol Hill lawmakers are now making several progressive arguments in favor of female editors. Replacing her fellow Democrats, Ms Houlahan introduced the amendment saying that, “as the selective service system is currently written, it is unconstitutional and discriminatory on the basis of sex”. Republican supporters like Congressman Mike Waltz, also sponsor of the amendment, present a practical case. They echo America’s generals in asserting that women are needed if ever a conscription were to be called – a necessity when less than a third of the adult population is considered fit for service. Opposition comes from a handful of social conservatives, who believe that including women in the project would undermine traditional gender roles.

Yet this bipartisan consensus is remarkable for the little support it enjoys in public opinion, especially among women. While just over half of men approve of female editors, only 36% of women do. Kara Vuic, a historian at the Christian University of Texas, notes that the first push for women in the project in the early 1970s was associated with the feminist promotion of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing Women’s rights. Conscription was seen as an obligation of full citizenship. Today, she observes, change is not being led by women alone. “The nature of war in the 21st century is very different, and the military needs women. For Ms. Vuic, the increasingly virulent support of the Pentagon is decisive.

Expanding the project would mean that virtually no legal restrictions remain for women in the armed forces. But a larger debate about the future of military conscription continues. Senators Ron Wyden and Rand Paul have proposed to abolish selective service entirely. Others lament the growing cultural divide between soldiers and civilians, calling for a revival of compulsory national service. Such differences are less easily bridged.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “XX-rated”


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