You Can Die for Your Country—But Forget Equal Rights

At the height of the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s, opponents like Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum made several arguments against the ERA. In addition to saying that the ERA would mandate single sex bathrooms and give gay couples the constitutional right to marry, Schlafly argued that the ERA would require women to be drafted into the military. 

With memories of the Vietnam War still fresh in the public’s mind—the first war to be played out in real time on the nightly news—thoughts of women in combat alarmed many Americans. By generating fear, the argument diverted attention from the real opposition to the ERA—business interests that would no longer get away with cheating women out of wages and opportunities, and overcharging women for insurance.

So isn’t it ironic that a national commission established by Congress recently recommended that women be required to register with the Selective Service for any future military drafts, while at the same time the Trump administration is blocking certification of the ERA after the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Amendment voted to do so earlier this year?

“A qualified and capable force means we must extend the registration requirement to all Americans, men and women,” said Debra Wada, vice chair for military service of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. She continued, “By leveraging the skills, abilities and talents of all Americans, regardless of gender, qualified men and women alike will be able to fill any and all personnel needs.”

Women have served in the military for over a hundred years. The first woman to enlist was Loretta Walsh in 1917. Women became a permanent part of the military services in 1948 and the military academies admitted women in 1976. Women are now 16 percent of the enlisted forces and 18 percent of the officer corps. 

Moreover, despite the limitations long placed on women in combat positions, women have always served in combat because a missile doesn’t know the difference between a woman serving as a cook or nurse in a military unit and the male combat soldiers. Nevertheless, women had to wait almost 50 years to gain access to all combat positions in the military.

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In 2015, Congress fully opened up the U.S. military to women, including front-line ground combat positions.

“They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat,” announced Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter at a press conference following the decision. “They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

“When I became secretary of defense, I made a commitment to building America’s force of the future,” Secretary Carter told reporters at the time. “In the 21st century that requires drawing strength from the broadest possible pool of talent. This includes women.”

Jonathan Silk, a retired Army major who served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a cavalry scout, reported that he had observed integrated military police units facing ferocious attacks during the insurgency.

“That is where I encountered female soldiers that were in the same firefights as us, facing the same horrible stuff, even if they weren’t technically in combat units. They could fight just as well as I could, and some of those women were tremendous leaders. It gave me such respect.”

Two years later, Congress formed an 11-member, bipartisan Commission to examine the question of whether women should be required to sign up for the Selective Service and issue recommendations. The Commission held dozens of hearings across the country in 42 cities and 22 states. In March, they issued their final report recommending that women be required to register with the Selective Service.

Right now, men between ages 18 and 25 are required to register with the Selective Service System. If they don’t, they are ineligible for federal student aid, federal job training or a federal job, and they may be prosecuted and face a fine of up to $250,000 and/or jail time of up to five years. Women may soon be subject to these same requirements—yet still be denied equal constitutional rights.

Polling shows that most Americans support the ERA, but men and women remain divided on the draft. While 76 percent of women support the ERA, only 38 percent agree with extending draft registration to women.

On the other hand, 70 percent of men support the ERA and 68 percent believe women should have to register for the draft (generally, men are more supportive of a draft: 36 percent of men versus 21 percent of women).

Ironically, conservatives who oppose the ERA are supporting draft registration for women. The director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Kori Schake, testified in May to the Commission, “It’s insulting to suggest America’s mothers and wives and daughters couldn’t contribute. America’s daughters should be slotted into service as their physical and emotional suitability proves capable of, just like America’s sons.”

Yet, at the same time, AEI Fellow Ramesh Ponnuru recently called the ERA a “zombie Amendment” that “cannot be reanimated.” 

Similarly, the National Coalition for Men, an anti-feminist organization, has sued to challenge the male-only Selective Service registration. A federal district court judge in Texas last year ruled that requiring only males to register violated the Constitution.

“If there ever was a time to discuss ‘the place of women in the Armed Services,’” wrote Senior Judge Gray Miller of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, “that time has passed.”

The case is currently under appeal before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Maybe it’s time to resurrect the slogan during the Vietnam War used by advocates for the Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18: “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” Apparently, we can fight their wars—but god forbid we get equal rights.

Oh yeah, and by the way, today same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry—and yet women are still without the ERA. 


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.