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Experience April/May 2024

The Draft: Will, and Should, Women Have the Duty to Register?

Francis Henry Morrison


  • Currently, only men aged 18 to 26 are required to register by the Selective Service.
  • Eliminating restrictions on women in combat have led to calls for women to register for Selective Service.
  • S.2150 has been introduced to eliminate male-only registration and expand draft eligibility to all individuals of the applicable age
The Draft: Will, and Should, Women Have the Duty to Register?
Lorado via Getty Images

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The last time the United States had to rely on a selective service draft, it changed my life. Since then, there’s been discussion about how to change the process in case it’s needed again in the future. What would that look like?

A bit of draft basics and history

After 22 amendments, including three name changes, The Selective Service Act of 1948 finally became known as the Military Selective Service Act. It included provisions relating to the U.S. government’s authority to draft only men into the military, which expired in 1973. Today, draft registration now provides the president with a pool of men for potential conscription into the armed forces upon Congressional authorization.

Between 1948 and 1973, men were drafted to fill military vacancies that couldn’t be filled through voluntary means. Induction authority, also called conscription, expired in 1973. In early 1975, registration was suspended, and the Selective Service System entered “deep standby.”

In 1979, revitalization efforts were adopted to upgrade the nation’s capability for rapid mobilization in an emergency, resulting in draft registration resuming during the summer of 1980. Then, as now, only men 18 to 26 were required to register on forms provided by the Selective Service.

Men who failed to register were allowed to receive later federal benefits (such as those provided by various GI Bills) provided they’d received a Form DD-214. That’s the form every veteran receives on conclusion of active duty, and it provides, among other things, dates of active service and a draft number proving he timely registered for the draft.

Selective Service presently determines a percentage of compliance for male registration of each state’s, in addition to Puerto Rico’s and the District of Columbia’s, eligible population. Currently, Massachusetts stands at 58.2 percent, Connecticut is at 94 percent, the District of Columbia is at 99 percent, and California is at 74 percent.

Americans born before 1990 received a draft registration card after registering and a card containing a notice of classification yearly. Selective Service classifications resulted from the local board’s assessment of a draft registrant’s availability for induction if volunteer numbers were inadequate.

Classifications during the Vietnam War included:

Class I-A—the siren call “available for service”

Class I-A-O—conscientious objector available for noncombatant service only

Class I-O—conscientious objector available for civilian work contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety, or interest

Class II-S—student deferment

Class III-A—extreme hardship deferment or registrant with a child or children

Class IV-F—registrant not qualified for military service, typically by reason of disability

The high-stakes lottery

During the Vietnam War, on December 1, 1969, Selective Service began using annual lotteries. For example, the 1969 Vietnam lottery determined the order of call for induction during calendar year 1970. Each birthday was randomly assigned a number by public drawing, which determined induction priority. This changed what had been a system where induction was determined by age to one based on a lottery number.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson introduced active American combat units into the war in Vietnam. Selective Service, in order to induct more men into the military, curtailed the granting of student draft deferments. From 1965 to 1968, many college students were being reclassified.

In 1966, the now-dormant Selective Services Qualifying Test was required to be taken by students who wanted to preserve their II-S student deferment for 1966. Anti-war protests—some violent—and acts of draft resistance, such as the burning of draft registration cards, took place between 1965 and 1973.

Selective Service regulations and governing law, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s Rostker v. Goldberg, have consistently held to the present day that only men have an obligation to register for the draft. With respect to who is a male, Selective Service’s position has generally been that any American whose assigned birth gender is male is required to register, irrespective of any later changes. And post 9/11, those whose birth gender is female are never required to register for the draft, even if their gender is later changed.

My journey with the draft

On July 3, 1965, I turned 18, and I registered for the draft with Local Board #2 in Hartford, Conn. In due course, I received my draft card with my registration number (6 2 47 720) and my classification card with my II-S student deferment because I enrolled in college in the fall. In 1966, I was required to take the Selective Service Qualifying Test to maintain my student deferment.

As my college years went by, the Vietnam War became bloodier. The Tet Offensive took place in 1968, and it seemed to turn the American public against the war and probably led Lyndon Johnson to announce, in March 1968, that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, combined with the civil rights protests in the spring and summer of 1968, exacerbated political and social chaos and tensions in America. As the Vietnam War became more unpopular, a not uncommon expression that spread among my peers in my college generation was: “I don’t want to be the last one to die in Vietnam.”

In September 1968, I was starting my senior year at the College of the Holy Cross and was planning my ambitious law school application campaign. Then the siren call came for me—I got a letter from Local Board #2 with the news that my classification was changed to I-A. I was available for induction.

The accompanying letter explained that I’d be permitted to finish my senior year but not to start graduate school. I’d be ordered to take my induction physical in June 1968 in preparation for entering the armed forces. Luckily, I was able to hold a place for post-discharge admission at Duke and Michigan by leaving my admission deposits in place at those law schools.

I decided I had to take my fate in my own hands. While I was as scared of a trip to Vietnam as my friends and classmates, many of whom never served, my family had a long history of voluntary military service. My father served in the Navy in World War II as engineering officer on the USS Alexander J. Luke DE 577 (named for a Marine killed in action on Tulagi in 1942). My grandfather served as a Navy medic in Europe during World War I. And my great-great-grandfather, a Baptist minister, served in the Vermont Regiment in the Civil War.

I applied for Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., which entailed a three-year commitment that, I thought, rendered service in-country in Vietnam unlikely. My application process had a substantial fly in the proverbial ointment. I reported on my application that I’d walked in my sleep, called somnambulism, which was a potentially disqualifying condition that could result in a draft exemption of IV-F, not physically qualified.

At the Navy-required neuropsychiatric examination, the doctor advised me that he could justify either of two results: either I wasn’t qualified for any military service, resulting in a IV-F classification, or I was nonetheless qualified for duty and my current I-A classification would stand and result in my admission to OCS.

His words, however, were: “The IV-F will be on your record forever.” My family’s military service tugged fiercely at the strings of my conscience.

I chose and started OCS, which notified Local Board #2. But on December 1, 1969, in the middle of my time at OCS, another fork appeared on the road I was traveling. The lottery drawing was publicly broadcast on the radio.

My birthday was the 115th drawn. It was in the top third of induction numbers—definitely not a safe bet given the state of the Vietnam War. Some of my OCS classmates with numbers well above 250 out of 365 resigned to take their chances with their I-A classification.

My father shared his view with me: “You took a seat in your OCS class in a very competitive process [Navy OCS was popular in 1969 at the height of the war]. You implicitly promised to finish and serve, so don’t come home without doing that.”

I graduated and went to my sea duty on the USS Grand Canyon (AD-28). I served in a repair ship where my duties included deck watch stander, special weapons, duty crypto officer, and ship’s legal officer.

In-country Vietnam duty beckons

With one year left of my commitment on the Grand Canyon, in the fall of 1971, my Navy detailer called me and said: “Admiral Zumwalt has ordered that young, qualified line officers like yourself are to serve a tour in-country Vietnam. Here are your choices. Call me next week with your preference. If you don’t call, we’ll choose for you here.”

My draft registration had led, after all, to service in Vietnam!

I felt required to tell my captain. He was on his third command at sea, with almost 30 years of service, including convoy runs to Murmansk as a merchant marine cadet during World War II. And he had a son my age who’d vowed not to serve.

My captain had this advice: “If you want to make the Navy a career, you should go. If not, I’ll grant your request to be retoured in this ship for the rest of your commitment. Go home tonight and discuss it with your wife.”

While I’ve had some guilt about this choice over the years, I stayed on the Grand Canyon to the end of my commitment.

On August 10, 1972, I was released from active duty and left the Grand Canyon with my DD-214 containing my dates of service and my draft registration number. That DD-214 was essential to my receiving monthly veteran’s education benefits while a law student—$170 per month for three years of law school—and medical services at the Durham, N.C., Veterans Hospital.

But for the draft, I probably wouldn’t have served my country during the Vietnam War. And not only would my service not have benefitted the Navy and my ship, but it wouldn’t have motivated my later life in service to my family, community, church, law school, two law firms, and too many professional organizations to list here.

Signs that women could begin to be drafted

While women have voluntarily served in uniform since the beginning of our republic, one of the principal arguments against requiring women to register for the draft has been the reluctance of some Americans to see women exposed to possible death and injury as a result of draft registration. The U.S. Department of Defense has historically opposed women being subject to the draft. But in recent years, women volunteering for military service have completed special forces schools such as the Army’s vaunted Ranger School and joined special forces units.

While the legal rule blocking women’s obligation to register for the draft remains in place, recent relevant events and advocacy suggest that influential forces are working to change that.

In 1992, the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces recommended integration of women into the armed forces based on qualifications rather than exclusion based on gender. And in 1993, Congress repealed the “risk rule,” which excluded women from combat units or missions that risked exposure to direct combat, hostile fire, or capture.

And in 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that DOD was rescinding the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule, which had been adopted in 1994 by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.

In 2020, a former research associate at the Center for a New American Security, Emma Moore, observed: “The practical meaninglessness of a formal ban on women in combat became increasingly evident in a post-9/11 world in which women were dying for their country…The percentage of women in the services overall has been rising slowly in recent years.”

Isn’t a formal ban on a female obligation to register for the draft equally meaningless?

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service clearly thought so in its 2020 final report. It singled out draft registration among other areas of national life and made this recommendation:

The commission recommends that Congress amend the Military Selective Service Act (MSSA) to eliminate male-only registration and expand draft eligibility to all individuals of the applicable age cohort.

It cited public opinion surveys slightly favoring women’s draft registration and included the following persuasive arguments regarding draft registration for women:

  • It promotes U.S. national security to leverage the full range of talent and skills available during a national mobilization.
  • It reaffirms the nation’s fundamental belief in a common defense and signals that both men and women are valued for their contributions in defending the nation.
  • The current disparate treatment of women unacceptably excludes women from a fundamental civic obligation and reinforces stereotypes about the role of women, undermining national security.

Congress hasn’t yet heeded the commission’s call to eliminate all-male draft registration. But in June 2023, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) introduced S.2150, stating that it was based on the commission’s recommendations. Its purpose is to establish an interagency council to promote and strengthen opportunities for military service, national service, and public service for all Americans and advise the president with respect to promoting, strengthening, and expanding opportunities for U.S. military service, national service, and public service.

The bill is progressing and has had two readings, and it has been referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. On October 25, 2023, the bill was reported favorably, with an amendment in the nature of a substitute. On November 14, 2023, the Congressional Budget Office prepared a cost estimate.

S.2150 is a clarion call to increase the opportunities for service in our military. Opening the duty to register for the draft will directly serve our nation’s interest. There’s now a clear path for Congress and the president to follow to provide for the equal right of draft registration for both men and women. For me, this equal opportunity to serve is what America needs to be about in 2024.