Female Marine recruits prepare to fire on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013 at MCRD Parris Island, South Carolina.
History of women in the U.S. military
01:26 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a specialist in 20th-century European history. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Selective Service is the first direct contact with the military many civilians have

She asks: If it's reserved for men, what message does this send about gender equity?

CNN  — 

Should United States women be required to register for Selective Service when they turn 18, as United States men are obliged to do currently?

Yes, argued Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in a recent Senate hearing. Yes, agreed Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, all fathers of girls, when asked their opinions on the matter during the last GOP debate. But Ted Cruz called the idea “nuts,” seeing it as an example of foolhardy “political correctness.”

These are momentous times in the history of women in the United States military, with the path cleared not only for full gender integration of the armed forces but for women in combat roles. There are currently no plans to revive the draft. Yet the idea of women registering for potential military service can be unsettling to people who otherwise support the idea of gender equity.

Here’s why it’s important that women be required to register.

First, the legal grounds for their exclusion from Selective Service are no longer valid. With women cleared for combat roles, the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the subject will not hold for long. The 1994 Department of Defense Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which did not permit women to be assigned to units below brigade level that had combat as their primary mission, has been rescinded since January 2013.

Law often lags behind changes in society and culture, as we have seen most recently with legislation regarding same-sex marriage: Let’s correct this case as well.

Second, the military for which women would be registering is now a more equitable institution. Women shoulder similar burdens to men throughout the military bureaucracy. That’s one reason the Navy and the Marine Corps are now reviewing job titles to consider making them gender-neutral (although the Air Force decided against such a review, and it is as yet unknown what the Army will do).

Third, many women have been de facto involved in combat situations even though they were officially banned from combat. It’s important to regularize this situation. The women who joined Special Operations troops in the field in Afghanistan in 2010 had this ambiguous status.

So did the female Army Air Forces pilots of the World War II who were charged with flying noncombat missions under U.S. Army Command but had no formal military designation. This meant that although 40 of them died, they were only recognized as veterans in 1977, and by the time they were among the women honored in 2010 with Congressional Gold Medals some of them had passed on.

Selective Service is the first direct contact with the military many civilians have – and the only one most will ever have. If it’s reserved only for men, what message does this send about gender equity?

It’s significant that a Marine Corps general came out in favor of female inclusion, because the Marine Corps has historically been among the most reluctant Armed Forces branches to shift policies that are at odds with on the ground wartime realities. When the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed American women to become full and permanent members of the Armed Forces, in recognition of their performance during World War II the Marines alone placed a ceiling of 2% of total enlisted personnel.

A 2015 Marine Corps study is the latest expression of such ambivalence. It found that women on average did not match men on many metrics of battlefield performance. Although the study was criticized, it remains indicative of many Marines’ fears that gender integration will mean lowered standards.

The strongest opposition comes from Special Operations forces. In December 2015, 85% of them believed women should stay away from Special Operations jobs altogether (and 70% opposed serving with them in individual units, citing their inferior mental and physical strength).

In some ways, this is unsurprising. These elite formations have their own cultures, rituals and histories – none of which included women. And the prominence Special Operations have today in American military interventions abroad only raises the stakes for excellence in performance – and the nightmarish scenarios if female comrades are taken as prisoners.

All of these fears filter down to worries about women opening that first door to joining the military by registering for Selective Service. This institution has come and gone in United States history. Created in 1917 to raise an army in wartime, it was abolished at the end of the Vietnam War, when our military became all-volunteer, only to return in its current form in 1980 in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Today, its description by Selective Service System Director Larry Romo as a “very, very, very inexpensive insurance policy,” seems apt. With active military service at an all-time low – now only 0.4% of the American population – this registration system would allow the United States to raise a fighting force in case of urgent and catastrophic need.

It may be unpalatable to many to think of their daughters, wives or partners being mobilized. But it’s shortsighted to remain in the rearguard on this issue, for reasons of gender equity as well as military strength.

In all areas of society, women have embraced the principle that equal rights brings with it equal duties. In the workplace and beyond, we share responsibilities with men. Selective Service registration should be no different.

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