Women would be required to register with the Selective Service if this amendment becomes law

WASHINGTON – For the first time in history, women may be on the cusp of being included in future U.S. military drafts. 

When Congress returns from Thanksgiving recess, they will be working overtime to approve the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass national security package. It includes an amendment that would require women ages 18 to 25 to register for the Selective Service, alongside men. 

Opponents have slammed the proposal as unfair, while supporters say the change would be good for the country – and equality.

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"Women make up over 50% of our population, and not including them in the Selective Service is not only a disservice to these women but also to our nation as a whole,” Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, the Pennsylvania Democrat and former Air Force officer who offered the amendment to the defense bill, said in September.

The provision would amend the Military Selective Service Act to require registration by women for Selective Service. The government uses that program to create and maintain a list of men to draw from in case of a national emergency that would require rapid expansion of the armed forces.

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Changing role of military women

The Selective Service System was formed in 1917 but didn't actively register men until the 1940s, ahead of World War II, when tensions around the world were high. Within 30 days of their 18th birthdays, male citizens and legal residents are required to register for Selective Service.

There has not been a military draft in the United States in nearly 50 years, since the end of the Vietnam War. The military is made up of  male and female volunteers.

A Government Accountability Office report found that around 17% of the active force now is women.

Almost all male citizens and immigrants between the ages of 18 and 25 are required to register with the Selective Service System, in case the draft is reinstated. Those who are confined – incarcerated, hospitalized or institutionalized – or have certain immigration visas are not. 

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Though women make up an increasing share of military personnel and serve in combat positions, they are exempt from registering.

In 1981, the Supreme Court concluded women could not register for the Selective Service, as they were, then, not eligible for military combat roles. That didn't change in 2015, when those roles were opened to women.

Female soldiers on Sept. 18, 2012, in Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

The NDAA passed the lower chamber in September. The Senate is debating the legislation, and will vote on the legislation by the end of the year. The amended NDAA would then be kicked back down to the House for final passage, before it lands on President Joe Biden's desk for a signature.

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The House adopted the amendment to include women in the Selective Service, and it seems likely the Senate will vote on the measure as well. If it passes both chambers, the provision would likely remain in the final version of the bill. 

The amendment has some bipartisan support in the upper chamber, and a majority on the Senate Armed Services Committee backed the amendment in a markup over the summer. 

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told USA TODAY that the "experience of now several decades have proven that American women are every bit as capable as American men of serving in every role in our armed forces."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told USA TODAY she supports the proposed amendment and "women registering for selective service."

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A GOP move to block women's registration

But several Republicans opposed the amendment, with Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of  Arkansas, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi introducing their own provision to counter it.

Cruz told USA TODAY that he does not believe it is "fair or right to forcibly draft women into combat."

"It should be their choice," he said, if the draft were to be reinstated. He called it "profoundly unfair, as the father of daughters."

Women shouldn't be "put into the situation where they are forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat with a man, where they would face significant challenges," Cruz said. "There are differences between men and women." 

Hawley told USA TODAY, "I don't think we should conscript, involuntarily, wives and mothers and daughters and women" if the draft were reinstated. 

Secretary of war Henry Stimson will draw from this goldfish bowl on Oct. 29, 1917, the first number in a nationwide lottery to determine the order of calling men for military training under selective service. Secretary of war Newton D. Baker, right, in this scene from June 27, 1918, draws the first number in the world war 2nd draft.

Traditional expectations around women and the military

Amy Rutenberg, an associate professor of history at Iowa State University who focuses on connections among war, society and gender, told USA TODAY that the mindset surrounding physical capability is a major reason why such a provision hasn't come to fruition yet.

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"Women have not been considered the same as men," Rutenberg said. "The expectation and the understanding (was) that men were public creatures who were more physically fit and more able to serve in the military."

The debate about women's place in society also plays a role. 

"Women were expected to be focused around the concepts of motherhood and family, and so on, but the traditional gendering and expectation of citizenship, in that particular way, has obviously changed over the centuries," she explained.

Rutenberg said there have been small efforts in the past to draft women, such as into the Army Nurse Corps during World War II, but they never passed or went far.

Previous attempts to include women in Selective Service

The first broad push to include women in the Selective Service occurred when President Jimmy Carter reinstated Selective Service registration in the 1980s, in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. That push didn't gain traction, Rutenberg explained.

The real reemergence of the conversation came in the 2010s, when frontline combat positions opened to women.

"There was movement in Congress for women to be included in the Selective Service (then) that received a lot of pushback," Rutenberg said. 

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Legislation was introduced in 2013 and 2015, but it was never given consideration.

The most notable action taken by Congress prior to the current amendment was a compromise to the 2017 NDAA that replaced requiring women to register with Selective Service with a commission to study the issue, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

Last year, the committee concluded that Selective Service should remain in place as the most efficient means of calling up citizens for duty in a national emergency and that women should be required to register.

Houlahan's office told USA TODAY that her amendment was based upon the findings of that commission.

Earlier this year, Biden's acting solicitor general asked the Supreme Court not to hear a case about the constitutionality of an all-male draft due to possible action in Congress.

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Elizabeth Prelogar said in a brief to the court, “any reconsideration of the constitutionality of the male-only registration requirement . . . would be premature at this time.

"Congress’s attention to the question may soon eliminate any need for the court to grapple with that constitutional question."

That brief did not state Biden's opinion on the issue. But a September statement from the administration signaled support for the amendment, saying the change "further ensures a military selective system that is fair and just."

Additionally, during last year's presidential election, Biden told the Military Officers Association of America candidate's forum that he would “ensure that women are also eligible to register for the Selective Service System so that men and women are treated equally in the event of future conflicts.” 

This undated photo released by the Utah National Guard shows 1st. Lt. Alessandra Kirby negotiating the Darby Obstacle Course at Fort Benning, Ga., during the Ranger Assessment. Kirby will be among a handful of women going to the grueling Army Ranger school as part of the U.S. military's first steps toward allowing women to move into the elite combat unit.

Another option: Get rid of Selective Service

There is a separate movement in the Senate to abolish the Selective Service instead, which taxpayers pay more than $25 million a year to keep updated.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., have introduced legislation to repeal the Selective Service, though it has not advanced.

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“The Selective Service has far outlived its expiration date, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars per year to prepare for a draft is no longer relevant to our military,” Wyden said in a statement. 

“Congress hasn’t come close to reinstating a military draft in 50 years, and I can’t imagine a scenario where it would. With the success of our all-volunteer force, this arcane system, which disproportionately harms disadvantaged young men, should be officially abolished, once and for all.”

Contributing: Chris Casteel, Oklahoman