The march toward gender equality in this country may soon pass a milestone that, while not attracting nearly as much attention as Hillary Clinton earning enough votes to be regarded as the presumptive nominee of a major political party, might be just as significant: Soon, women may have to register for the draft just as men do when they reach the age of 18.
At least two things are notable about this. The first is that conscripting women into military service is not a common practice around the world — although allowing them to serve in the armed forces is. Indeed, there are more countries that currently allow women in combat roles than there are nations forcing women into mandatory military service these days.
The second is that the U.S. Senate approved the change in Selective Service eligibility this week through an overwhelming bipartisan vote — as part of the defense authorization bill that was passed 85 to 13. A handful of conservative Republican senators voiced their objections, but those opponents, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas who said the "idea that we should forcibly conscript young girls in combat to my mind makes little sense at all," were clearly in the minority. In the majority? People like Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the GOP's leading voice in military matters.
Of course, the House must approve similar language (it didn't include such a provision in its own version of the bill) and President Barack Obama would have to sign it for the measure to become law. And even then, the odds of the U.S. ever imposing a draft — something the government hasn't done since 1973 and the Vietnam War era — are somewhere between slim and none.
Yet there are consequences to making women draft eligible. The first and most obvious is that they will also become eligible for the penalties associated with failing to register for the draft within 30 days of their 18th birthday. That means women who don't register could lose eligibility for college financial aid or for government employment or to work for government contractors. Some can even lose their citizenship status if they are recent immigrants. And not registering is also a felony under law, which means draft dodgers could face fines of up to $250,000 or a prison term up to five years or some combination of both under the Military Selective Service Act.
Prosecutions are rare, but loss of federal benefits is not. In some states, the percentage of draft-eligible men who actually register hovers around 75 percent. The District of Columbia is the worst performing jurisdiction with a compliance rate of 34 percent for men born in 1994, according to the Selective Service System. Maryland also receives low marks for that class with a 77 percent rate.
Does the U.S. still need a draft? Considering the country hasn't had one for 43 years, that's a fair question. But military experts say it's prudent to maintain the registration if only to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the U.S. is prepared to conscript its citizens, if necessary, to defend itself and its allies. Registration speeds the process of any potential mobilization.
A major reason women haven't been eligible in the past is their restriction from combat duty. All that changed earlier this year when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced final plans to fully integrate women in combat beginning next year. As Senator McCain observed, it's only fair that "since we opened all aspects of the military to women that they would also be registering for Selective Service."
Should gender-neutral draft registration become law in this country, the immediate effect may be mostly administrative (and probably just an annoyance like MVA renewals to the majority), but the more subtle message of equality it sends shouldn't be overlooked. Our society is slowly removing the shackles it has placed on women. Now, if as much progress could be made on such issues as equal pay for equal work, improved maternal health care, reducing violence against women or protecting reproductive rights, the march toward gender equality would be a war won and not just a nonpartisan cause that a growing number of Americans support.