Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

Should women have to register for the draft?

An illustration of Susan Cahn and Jessica Goodell.

Susan Cahn (left) and Jessica Goodell. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

In June, the Senate passed a bill that would require women to register for the draft when they turn 18, just like men. Given that women can now serve in all combat roles, is this a natural course of events, and only fair? Or is there something inherently wrong about forcing women into potential military service? We posed these questions to Susan Cahn, a UB history professor and expert on gender history, and Jessica Goodell, a UB doctoral student in counseling psychology, Marine Corps veteran and author of the memoir “Shade It Black” about her experiences serving in Iraq.

Susan Cahn: I wouldn’t say “natural course of events,” because it’s all political, but it’s the logical outcome of full equality and full citizenship. Citizenship is not just rights but also obligations, so I think that men and women should be drafted. I also have some critiques, but I think it’s a basic issue of equal treatment. If women can serve in combat, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be registering for the draft.

Jessica Goodell: I have several thoughts on this. One is that while combat roles may be open to females, combat is not what it used to be. There are no clear-cut lines where the enemy is on one side and ally forces are on one side. It’s this all-encompassing situation. While women are now finding themselves in these places where there is war going on, I think there is still a distinction between what is a combat role and a non-combat role. For instance, when I went to Iraq, I stayed on base for the majority of the time. Certainly, I went on convoys and came back to base, but my role was mostly on base, not so much integrated in the community. So I think even the term combat has different connotations to it and different meanings.

SC: But aren’t there jobs that women do get, that lead them right into combat situations even if they’re not officially combat?

JG: Yes. I was in the mortuary affairs platoon. We would get called when someone had lost their life in crossfire, in shooting, in an IED [improvised explosive device], some sort of explosion. There were times when we went out on a convoy to pick up the remains, and sometimes the firing was still going on. So we might help with security, or we might set up a perimeter, but essentially we’re still on the outside, waiting for the fire to quit to go in.

SC: Do you think that those distinctions should affect whether women have to register for the draft or not?

JG: I think it should be considered. I think other things should be considered too. For example, these roles were just recently opened up to women, so while women may now be allowed to enter into these fields, we’re still not getting them in large numbers. I was a mechanic. There were many times when I was the only female in the whole platoon. I think that creates a dynamic we need to be aware of. So while we’re allowed, what are the numbers that are actually there?

SC: My concern is with women in the military when it’s an all-volunteer military. I think if you’re talking about registering for the draft, then it seems only fair to me that women and men would register, and maybe that there would be other kinds of national service, besides the military. I think the problem with women in the military is that it’s such a male-dominated institution. The rates of sexual assault are sky-high, and so in some ways you’d be putting women in the face of that danger, which is internal, not the danger of an enemy. It seems like we’ve had enough of a cultural shift to say, “OK, fair is fair,” but not enough of a cultural shift to make the military a very different culture.

JG: Right. The military is a hyper-masculine culture, and I think they have very twisted notions of what masculinity is. So in the civilian world, we say we want women to have equal rights. I’m all about that. But the military has not yet changed. It seems like there’s a push from the civilian side, and maybe the military world is trying to adapt to it, but there hasn’t been a change in those cultural beliefs. Females are so objectified in the military, and then put in these high-risk situations. Real change would require a cultural shift in beliefs within the military to be more accepting.

SC: Yeah, and I don’t know how you make that happen. I mean I think, very incrementally, women in leadership can change the culture, just like black and Latino men in leadership positions have, but it’s so slow. Rape and war have always been connected and it’s just so sad. There’s something in the way that people get ramped up to fight, or in the way that the enactment of masculinity can include that without much criticism. There’s criticism from the outside, but not from the inside.

JG: I was thinking earlier, maybe if we already had equal pay for equal work, I could see women being drafted. Then I started thinking, I wonder if women being drafted might be part of the process of being seen and treated more equally in the civilian world.

SC: Or if that inequality in the workplace would just make its way into the military. That’s a good question. I think part of what we’re seeing is the problems created by partial victories of feminism. Women have their foot in the door, but they haven’t been able to change the culture. Most married women and single women work, but they haven’t fully realized equal pay. The world is such a different place, even from what it was 50 years ago, but in some ways the same problems are still there. They’re just buried or take slightly different forms. Certainly, inequities of the labor force are still there. On the other hand, we have a woman who might become president.

For me, as a historian, it’s important to understand the balance between tremendous change and also tremendous resistance. I was reading that it was someone who was against women in the military who added this amendment, thinking that it would be so far-fetched that the whole bill would fail. And then someone basically called his bluff and found enough people who supported it that it passed. It was going to go out to committee, but then they found some very technocratic way to bring it back. The fact that it was initially proposed by someone who hates the idea of women being drafted puts that contradiction right out there.

So Jessica, would you say that women shouldn’t have to register, given the inequalities in society generally and in the military?

JG: I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think that question can be answered in a vacuum. There are so many other considerations that need to be on the table, for me it’s hard to say.

“It seems like we’ve had enough of a cultural shift to say, ‘OK, fair is fair,’ but not enough of a cultural shift to make the military a very different culture.”
Susan Cahn

SC: Part of women going into the military has been ensuring we have a large enough volunteer force, because otherwise, it probably wouldn’t be big enough to carry out these wars. At the same time, I think if there was a draft right now, there would be a much bigger anti-war movement, and the U.S. probably wouldn’t still be in these wars, or they wouldn’t have played out the way they have. And since I’m not in favor of the wars—most of the wars—that the U.S. ends up being involved in, I would hope that women having to register for the draft would actually help kindle a resistance to the draft. I don’t know how you feel about me saying that about the military, having been in it.

JG: I appreciate what you’re saying. I’m thinking about the power that our military has, and if we’re a mostly masculine combat force going into another country, we have a particular face, an image of our country and of war. If we can add women to it, I wonder what that would do to the image of war. Let’s say, for example, a country is being invaded, and then they have women invading them, how that might affect the scenario. I used to work with the infantry. I would be part of their training scenarios, and they would have us dress up like the citizens of the country that we were about to invade and teach the men how to interact with the women. If we have women doing the invading, that could change the dynamic.

SC: Especially because, as I understand it, a lot of what people at least hoped would happen [in these wars] is that the troops would help to make community connections and support communities to develop democracy. It’s possible that women would be really good at that. I also wonder if a draft that included women would get paired with a different vision of national service, perhaps involving the kinds of things the National Guard gets sent out to do. It could be working on environmental problems, rebuilding infrastructure. It could possibly be connected to teaching, though that would require a higher level of education. In the past, people like conscientious objectors have performed medical-related service.

JG: If women were drafted, I think there would be a ripple effect of what would need to occur in the military. Training would need to change, expectations would need to change. When I was in the Marines, we had an influx of women going into infantry training, but many failed out. The problem is that women are trained differently from day one. We have different expectations of women and men from the time that they’re born all the way up through adulthood. And not only that, but in training in the military there are different expectations.

SC: Are there different standards?

JG: There are gender-based standards of performance. For a Marine Corps physical fitness test, men have to run three miles in 18 minutes for a perfect score. Women have 21 minutes. Men do 20 pull-ups, and then women have to do a flexed-arm hang for 70 seconds. Women are never trained to do the pull-ups. So when they tell women, “Go do a pull-up,” and then women struggle to do one pull-up, well, that was never part of our training. And so I think if we see this influx, we need to see different training in order for women to succeed.

SC: Right. Because I study sports, I’ve thought about gender differences and bodies. There are average differences, but there are always women who can out-perform men, and there are women who just passed the Army Rangers test, but women tend to have less upper-body strength. They could have tests that have to do with lower-body strength and balance in which women might outperform men. They could reevaluate some skills, because skills themselves end up being gendered, so certain kinds of physical strength are valued more and seen as more masculine. Endurance is not seen as so masculine, and that’s an area in which women can sometimes perform better than men. It would be interesting if what counted as skills or necessary abilities would change.

JG: And I wonder if the military would become a safer place with more women there, if sexual assault or rape might go down.

SC: It could be less isolating for the women, because from what I’ve read, for the women who do report assaults, there’s retaliation. A good percentage of the women who are raped are raped twice during their course of service. I think that some kinds of networks or forms of solidarity would be able to form.

JG: This bill might be a kick-start to changing the military culture.

SC: It could, but I would imagine that for whatever kick-start it gave, there would be a kick back, and that’s what you’d see playing out over the first 20 years or something, just like when Truman racially integrated the troops.

JG: We’re still seeing consequences of that in 2016. You had mentioned blacks and Latinos in leadership, but while the military is very diverse…

SC: It’s reported to be the most integrated institution in society.

JG: Right, we all train together, we all eat together, we all work together, but when they say fall out of that platoon, the white folks go over here, the black folks go over here. They still tend to segregate once they’re out of that platoon. I’m not saying across the board, I’m just saying it’s common.

SC: It sounds like lunch rooms in high schools that are multiracial. Often when you get to lunch, you end up with pockets of similar people. Do you think the recent change of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military is having any implications on gender dynamics, or does it seem like a pretty separate thing?

JG: My experience with that is that once people of all sexual orientations were able to enlist, many did not want people to know their orientation, because there was still heavy retaliation. I think there’s still a large tendency to not share that information.

SC: For self-preservation.

JG: Yes. There is still a lot of bullying or oppression of people who are different even though technically they’re allowed to be included. We know from the past that even when laws get passed, it takes so long for culture to catch up.

SC: Yeah, law is really just like an opening wedge. The question is who does what with the laws.

JG: But it’s exciting to see all these changes happening because if anybody needs it, it’s the military. It also makes me hopeful, because if the military can be inclusive and make these changes, then the rest of us can too.

How do you take your coffee?

Susan: I take it with cream. If it’s good, I don’t need any sugar, and usually I drink decaf because you don’t really want to see me caffeinated.

Jessica: I take it every day.