A Short History of Women and the Draft

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Women Military Draft
(U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Laura Mercado)

On Dec. 1, 1969, Curtis W. Tarr turned a drum full of 366 blue lottery numbers inside the Commerce Department's auditorium in Washington, D.C.

It seemed like the whole country was watching the bureaucrat. CBS even interrupted its nightly schedule to show what was about to happen.

Tarr, director of the Selective Service System, was ready to pull out a lottery number at random and change thousands of American lives by forcing military-age males into service -- maybe even the war in Vietnam.

In all, seven draft lotteries were held, the last in March 1975. But the lotteries applied only to men. When President Jimmy Carter revived the idea of a revised draft system in 1980, he recommended including women; however, Congress wasn't keen on the idea.

In the latest episode of Military.com's Left of Boom podcast, Managing Editor Hope Hodge Seck talks about America's history with Selective Service -- and women registering for it -- with Joe Heck, a former Republican congressman from Nevada, physician and U.S. Army Reserve brigadier general.

Heck is currently the chair of the National Commission on Military, National and Public service. He led the congressional commission that completed a multi-year study addressing whether the United States should have a draft system and if women should register for the first time ever.

The 11-member bipartisan commission held hearings in 42 cities across more than 20 states over two years. It provided 49 recommendations in its review of the Selective Service process to "consider methods to increase participation in military, national, and public service to address national security and other public service needs of the nation."

One of those recommendations is to amend the Military Selective Service Act -- first established in 1948 -- to include the registration of women.

Anti-war groups have criticized the idea. But men's rights groups have challenged the male-only law in federal courts, and one judge ruled that excluding women is unconstitutional.

When the Supreme Court took up the issue in 1981, it reasoned that excluding women was justified if they can't even serve in combat. Almost 30 years later, that justification is gone.

President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to start conscripting women as early as 1945 because the U.S. military was experiencing a dire shortage of nurses. When FDR mentioned conscripting nurses in his State of the Union Address, they responded by enlisting -- making a draft unnecessary.

After World War II, with the threat of war with Russia looming, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower publicly stated his belief in the need for a universal draft system. In a hearing before the House Committee on Armed Services in 1948, he said, "I am convinced that in another war they have got to be drafted just like men. I am convinced of that."

Women were still not drafted for Korea or Vietnam, though some 120,000 of them served on active duty during the Korean War, according to the Korean War Legacy Foundation. A third of those were in health care positions, including frontline Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals.

A further 11,000 women served in Vietnam, nearly all volunteers and most of them nurses, though they did fill other positions, such as doctors, intelligence officers, clerks, air traffic controllers and more. At least eight military women and 59 civilian women died in Vietnam.

Women weren't officially allowed to serve in combat roles until December 2015, a full 34 years after the Supreme Court ruled that the Selective Service law was justified as long as they weren't allowed in combat. Five years later, Heck and his committee found they should register for the draft.

"The recommendation was based on two broad, strategic imperatives," Heck told Seck. "The first was about standards. It should all be about standards."

He was talking about the 71% of American males who are ineligible for military service due to everything from physical and mental health issues to criminal records.

"It doesn't make sense to exclude 50% of the population when only 29% of the eligible population is qualified," Heck said.

The second imperative that led to the commission's recommendation was about equality, especially equality in the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship, he added.

"Every American enjoys rights that are enshrined in the Constitution," Heck said. "Therefore, every American should have the responsibility to defend those rights when endangered."

This doesn't mean that women (or actually, anyone) could be called up for military service right away. The Selective Service System is responsible for maintaining records and data associated with those who are eligible to be drafted for service. To actually draft anyone, Congress would have to create legislation that would then have to be signed into law by the president.

Tune in to new episodes of Military.com's Left of Boom podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn and Stitcher. Follow Hope Hodge Seck on Twitter @HopeSeck.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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