It’s an idea that appears to be on two tracks. On an actual policy level, Congress and the Biden administration are moving toward requiring women to register for the draft, with the policy changes potentially becoming law by the end of the year. But on a political level, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and other Republicans appear to be seizing on the proposal as their latest weapon in the trenches of the culture war.
Just last week, Hawley introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to strip out language in the annual Pentagon policy bill that would make women subject to registering for the draft. Similar language has already passed the House in its NDAA bill and if both bills get through their respective chambers with the provisions, it’s almost certain the final version of the legislation would include the new policy.
Which is why Hawley is calling attention to the issue now, in advance of the NDAA hitting the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
“It is wrong to force our daughters, mothers, wives, and sisters to fight our wars,” Hawley said last week. “Our country is extremely grateful for the brave women who have volunteered to serve our country with and alongside our fighting forces. They have played a vital role in defending America at every point in our nation’s history. But volunteering for military service is not the same as being forced into it, and no women should be compelled to do so.”
Hawley is just the latest Republican to pick up the mantle of a man opposed to drafting women into the military. For decades, former Vice President Mike Pence—even before he was an elected official—has railed against women in the military, using the issue as a cudgel against the left. In 1999, Pence wrote an op-ed claiming that the Disney movie Mulan was trying to trick Americans into thinking that a woman, with all her “delicate features and voice,” could actually perform well in the military, calling experiments in gender integration in the U.S. military at the time a “complete disaster.”
But the issue has been gaining steam on Capitol Hill for years. In 2016, then-congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) put forward an amendment that would add women to the draft, as a “gotcha” way to demonstrate that there wasn’t broad support for that kind of change. The amendment backfired, however. While Hunter didn’t vote for it, many others did, and the proposal has continued to gather votes since.
Fast-forward to today—when Democrats control the House, Senate, White House, and Pentagon—and there’s a real chance that what was once GOP bluster could now become military policy.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was adamant last week that he has no problem opening up the draft to women, noting that if Americans can effectively serve in the military, then they are welcome.
Milley said the country was built upon the idea that everyone is created equal. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, or tall or short, rich or poor,” he said. “If you’re willing to shed your blood to defend this constitution, then bring it on.”
That speech prompted Hawley, who has never served in the military, to call for Milley’s resignation.
Hawley acknowledges that he views this issue more through a political prism than policy one. He told a local Missouri and Kansas outlet, News-Press NOW, that he thought compelling women to register for the draft was really “part of the Democrats’ ongoing social agenda.”
But for Democrats, there are good reasons to support opening up women to the draft. The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service recommended last year that women be included in the draft because it is “in the national security interest of the United States.”
And the Republicans in Congress who are working with Democrats to make this policy a reality seem to be doing so out of national security concerns.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL), the Republican who co-sponsored an amendment to add the selective service language in the House Armed Services Committee, said that if the country did have to resort to a draft, it’d be because they “need everybody.”
“Man, woman, gay, straight, any religion, Black, white, brown,” Waltz said recently on the House floor, as Roll Call noted in an October report.
The former Army Green Beret teamed up with Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), who served in the military herself for 17 years, to offer the women-in-the-draft language in the House. And the language in the Senate was offered by former Army Major—and current Armed Services Chairman—Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI).
Still, there’s a reason Hawley is seizing on this issue.
An Ipsos poll from August found that support for opening the draft up to women had actually decreased since 2016, with 45 percent of Americans supporting the proposal now compared to 63 percent five years ago. And Hawley is gambling that his efforts to crystallize opposition to the issue can make it even more toxic.
Which is why Hawley’s critics see his accusations that Democrats are playing politics as classic projection.
“He argues that those in favor of the bill are trying to impose a certain view of gender roles and relations; so is he,” said Lindsay Cohn, a former top Pentagon official, who is now associate professor in national security affairs at the Naval War College. “He is trying to maintain a world in which women as a group are kept out of certain roles because they are considered ‘unfit’ for those roles, or because men (and some women) do not want to have to think about women in those roles.”
Instead of making arguments about military readiness or national security issues, this just looks like the latest opportunity Hawley and some Republican lawmakers are taking to jump into the fray on social issues to prove a point and “keep women in their place,” said Lory Manning, a retired U.S. Navy Captain.
"He’s just spewing arguments that have been made and made and made, and disproved and disproved and disproved. If we don’t want young mothers to go into the military, fine, then Congress just writes that in the law,” Manning said. “This is the song that social conservatives have been singing since as long as I’ve [been in the military] and I’ve spent 25 years in the military.”
That part is true. Conservatives have consistently attacked issues related to women serving in the military. And some critics believe this is much larger than a political issue.
“By leaving women out, it’s really sending the fundamental message that their service in the military isn’t as necessary,” Max Z. Margulies, assistant professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told The Daily Beast. “I think [that] has pretty damaging implications for gender rights and for how we think about national security.”
Hawley says he’s worried about mothers being forced to fight America’s wars. But the reality is, if lawmakers move forward on requiring women to register with the selective service, Congress could make guardrails that keep mothers and certain groups of people from being conscripted in case of a draft.
“Just registering for selective service doesn’t mean somebody’s daughter is going to end up in the trenches… Congress can decide where these people would serve,” Manning said.
Hawley’s arguments about trying to keep women out of the draft comes just as he is particularly worried about the purity of masculinity and preserving the image of men as strong and capable. Modern conversations about how men are too aggressive and rambunctious, he said, have resulted in manhood and masculinity withering away.
“Can we be surprised that after years of being told they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games?” Hawley told an audience at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, adding that manliness should be celebrated, not degraded.
When it comes to the selective service though, men’s rights groups have long argued that the current setup excluding women is an affront to men. The penalties that men face when they don’t sign up to serve their country are issues women don’t have to confront, making the current selective service situation an unfair arrangement, in their thinking. In a 2019 ruling on the selective service, U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller labeled the male-only system “gender-based discrimination.”
Efforts to include women in the draft aren’t just a part of contemporary culture wars. Discussions about including women in the selective service have been raging for generations. As U.S. allies conscripted women to serve in World War II, proposals to do the same were floated in the United States, with a fair amount of support, Margulies noted.
Unlike this year, those efforts always fell short. Expanding who has to register for selective service looks to be on the fast-track. And despite Hawley’s best attempts, the policy has bipartisan support.
The amendment adding the language to the Senate bill was adopted with the support of all but five Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, and other Republicans, in both chambers, have signaled they support changing the military policy—even if it’s once again cropping up in the culture war.
As Manning said, most people hear a proposal that would subject their daughter to registering for the draft and think: “Oh my God, she’s going to be in a WWI trench with rats and rapists.”
“It’s used to scare people,” Manning said. “It’s used to keep women in their place.”