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Staying Out of the Trenches

Shortly after President Carter announced on February 8 his proposal to register women along with men for a draft, debate over the gender of the registrants had driven all sorts of strange bedfellows into the opposition camp. It was a nightmare for Phyllis Schlafly, who once demanded that the government “go ahead on the B-1 bomber.” When Schlafly heard the news she accused Carter of “stabbing American womanhood in the back.” The presidents of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations protested in a letter to the New York Times on February 13 that Carter's proposal threatened to destroy “a sense of modesty, self-discipline and family purity in relations between the sexes.” On the left, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), one of three women's organizations that are part of the Committee Against Registration and the Draft (CARD)—a national fulcrum of anti-registration/anti-draft activity—had come out against registration for anyone, male or female. Somewhere on the horizons of the mounting resistance were the rightwing Libertarians.

At least two major women's organizations, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), found themselves shifting their basic arguments in the scramble to keep pace with the administration's escalating proposals. On lanuary 25, the day after Carter hinted that he planned to include women in his proposal to register “young people” for the draft in his State of the Union address, NOW president Fleanor Smeal said her organization was “totally opposed” to the draft for both men and women. But by February 8, NOW issued a long press release that moved from initial support for female registration (“If there is to be a registration, it must include women. Let's face it: women are an established part of the modern military. , . .”), through a small thicket of allusions to discrimination against women in the military, to a reassertion of opposition to registration for both sexes “because it is a response which stimulates an environment of preparation for war.” “But if,” the release concluded, “there is a registration or draft, it must include women.” The shifts in statements released by the National Women's Political Caucus within the same period are almost identical.

The NOW effort bespoke hours of heated discussion in committee, frantic efforts to cover all flanks in a position of disadvantage on the battlefields of the momentuous military gender debate. If you consider that ever since Carter's proposal feminists have been suffering emotional blackmail by those who are using the ERA to bait them into accepting registration, and by others who are using it to put them back in the doll's house, you can almost forgive NOW's statement, midway through the second press release, that as sex discrimination costs the government billions of dollars, one should consider that “a high-quality female recruit costs the army $150 to recruit while a comparable male costs $3700.”

What is hardest to understand is NOW's (and NWPC's) “anti-pro” position. Smeal explained: “If registration is wrong, it's equally wrong for males and females. However, it's a huge cop-out not to answer the next question, 'What if there's going to be a registration or a draft? What's your position on whether women should be included?”' There is a certain realpolitik to this position, which separates general anti-draft, anti-registration principles from the organization's stand on a particular piece of legislation. It also has grounding in the Constitution: the Supreme Court has interpreted the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment as one that embodies the notion of equal protection, and it is now possible to challenge sex-exclusive legislation as unconstitutional. Within the next two months or so, a bill requesting $20 million for male registration will come up in Congress (Carter is keeping his request for money separate from his proposal that women be included in the process). If a males-only registration appropriation passes, the government could be sued for sex discrimination. David Landau, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, has said it s likely that men, not women, will bring suit against the government if any exclusively male registration appropriation passes.

NOW and NWPC would have to do some fancy shuffling to avoid the pitfalls no matter which stand they took. For example, in a 24-page position paper, NOW has discussed, among other things, the demonstrated capabilities of women in an army that needs “more brains than brawn”; in the meantime, days after Carter's announcement about female registration, swing votes in Virginia went against the ERA on the grounds that if the amendment passed, women might have to go into the trenches.

NOW and the National Women's Political Caucus representatives confide that their move to qualified endorsement of female registration was partly prompted by concern about the ERA. But in the current situation the ERA is synonymous with Catch-22. Many women's representatives have angrily expressed the opinion that the idea of women's equality symbolized by the ERA is being used against women now. “When American- women have equality of opportunity,” said Bella Abzug a week after Carter's announcement, “it will be time to talk about equality of sacrifice.” (Abzug went on to denounce registration for either sex.) Feminist opponents of Carter's proposal wryly observe that equality of opportunity is relative at best even within the All Volunteer Army (AVA), where women have managed to get a toehold in some nontraditional jobs. Registration and the draft, the antis argue, aren't likely to reverse such discrimination. Invariably, center-left antis oppose registration for both sexes, arguing instead that AVA should be upgraded. They counter arguments that the AVA is “an economic draft” by arguing that while the AVA may be in part a forced choice, the draft is purely coercive. No one would disagree—certainly not young women who have already begun imagining the options. “Forget it,” say increasing numbers of young women. “I'll just get pregnant.”

But for the time being, a number of feminists believe that the gender controversy is a trap: while it rages, congressional authorization of the $20.5 million appropriation for male registration could go through without much debate. Barry Lynn of CARD agrees, adding, “I think it's a smokescreen by the administration to have the media and the public focus on a question that's going to die very promptly—if it ever comes up.” The female registration proposal may never come up for congressional debate, since it must go first through preliminary discussion in the Armed Services Subcommittees in both houses, and the odds are that it will be killed there. Lynn envisions a five-to-two vote in the Senate subcommittee against the measure and a vote of six or seven to 12 in the House. This doesn't mean the question will die, of course, since any sexexclusive bill that passes Congress would almost certainly trigger lawsuits.

Other women in the anti camp insist that the debate over women, even in its present state, is manipulative. “I think,” said Representative Pat Schroeder, Democrat of Colorado, “there's no question that women would say, 'If it's needed, we'll be there.' The point is, we want equal rights on the discussion of 'Is it needed?' instead of getting cornered into fighting with Phyllis Schlafly over whether or not we're going to have to go.” Many oppose registration on the grounds that it won't do what its proponents say it will—save time in an eventual mobilization. According to Schroeder, who led a successful fight on the House floor last September to block registration, such a sign-up would save two weeks at most.

One gets into dreadful bogs debating how much time Selective Service preliminaries take, as registration proponents trot out Pentagonese (“M plus 30 days,” etc.) to bolster estimates based on computer projections and analysis of Soviet military strategy. The bottomline argument of registration opponents is that the registration process would be symbolic. “It was probably introduced to demonstrate to Americans we're doing something,” said Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, Democrat of New York, “and show the world our national resolve. But it will have a negligible impact at best on mobilization, and as a symbol it's selfdefeating,” she continued, adding drily that student protests on the increase since the beginning of the month will hardly help Carter show the world an American united front. Moreover, said Holtzman, “If the registration has been invoked for symbolic purposes, would a draft then be invoked, and then war? When we see symbolism replacing necessity as a justification for military action, we're seeing the whole situation escalate.”

And it is precisely war that is now on the minds of the US government and the military. In the Department of Defense's annual report for fiscal year 1981, colloquially called “The Posture Statement,” Defense Secretary Harold Brown asserted that the US must protect its interests against “turbulence in the Third World,”and proposed creation of a new (and controversial) intervention force for policing the third world, called the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF). The RDF projected by Brown is a quick-strike force, but if its numbers were depleted in combat, new bodies would be needed—and finding new bodies means restoration of the draft.

All of this war talk raises questions for feminists about the role of women in America's updated military. Proponents of female registration wander from the immediate sign-up issue into discussions of the relative strength needed to push buttons. But women who are unqualifiedly against the current registration drive and its implications argue that women will have to decide whether they want any part at all in the sort of rapid deployment militarization the Carter administration envisions. “It's not that we don't think women can do those jobs,” said one anti-draft spokeswoman. “We know they can. It's just that they're not jobs we think anyone should be doing.”

In the wake of Carter's announcement that Marines will sail into the Persian Gulf next month, hints of the smaller ironies of female support for certain US interventions have begun emerging. It now appears that the Afghan rebellion quashed by the Soviet Union began when the Russian-supported regime tried to enforce Afghan women's rights. “There is some irony,” wrote Ellen Goodman in the Boston Globe, “in thinking that our own young women could be drafted and sent to defend the rights of Afghan men to deny the rights of Afghan women.”

Just how many super-patriarchs would survive on either side in a “limited” war of the sort proposed in the DOD “Posture” statement is unclear, According to a Washington Post report from the first week in February, the RDF isn't strong enough to defeat any opponent without using tactical nuclear weapons. “When we talk about the necessity of war with the Soviet Union,” said Elizabeth Holtzman, “I think we have to recognize the consequences could include a nuclear holocaust. To talk about military solutions is to forget you have other solutions, and that's a bankrupt policy.”  

The day after Carter announced his plan to register women, doctors and scientists met at a Harvard symposium entitled “The Medical Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear War.” “In a nuclear war,” stated Dr. Robert I. Lifton of Yale, “there are no winners or losers. . . . Nuclear war is a mutual unleashing of genocidal forces.” One can treat such a war, said Dr. Howard Hiatt, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, only as an epidemic with a single cure—”that of prevention.”

In the interests of preventing faits accomplis in the escalating cold war. Representative Schroeder met informally February 13 with other congresswomen and the representatives of a wide range of women's organizations to discuss the implications of the registration drive. The meeting, said Schroeder, was a response to the exclusion of women from decision making in the upper realms of government. “The men were saying, 'We're not going to let you make the big decisions, sweetie. We'll make them, and then you can decide whether you'll be equal.” By the time this article appears, another meeting of women's groups, including WILPF, NOW, Women Strike for Peace, and the National Women's Political Caucus, will have taken place in Philadelphia for further debate about the current crisis.

Meanwhile, the anti-draft movement has risen from the ashes of the 1960s on college campuses around the country (the old slogans returned in an anticorporate key: “Hell, no, we won't go! We won't fight for Texaco!”), and a large number of the participants are female. As the lines of debate about “the Carter doctrine” become clearer, women will take a stand not on gender but on the crises in America's political economy, and on whether war is the best way of solving them.