01:26 - Source: CNN
History of women in the U.S. military

Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, is faculty chair of the Homeland Security Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is also the founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. Monica Medina was a special assistant to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. She is the publisher of Our Daily Planet. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.

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Today, registering for the draft has been reduced to a rite of passage for many young American men – a perfunctory civic duty with little meaning, since conscription ended more than 40 years ago. One might question why there is still a required registration, especially since volunteers have filled the ranks of our armed forces. But last month, a federal court in Texas ruled that the male-only registration requirement is unconstitutional.

Women were previously excluded from the draft primarily because they were barred from serving in combat. Because that rule changed in all branches of the military in late 2015, the judge found the original justification no longer applied. While the ruling in Texas has no immediate practical effect because the judge did not issue an injunction requiring specific changes to the draft registration, another judge has opened the door to a possible court order after a woman filed a lawsuit asking to be allowed to register.

In the three years since they have been allowed to serve in combat, women have broken many barriers. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently noted in The Washington Post, women have achieved a series of remarkable firsts, from the first woman to graduate from the Marine Corps’ infantry officer basic course, to the first women to integrate into Army infantry units. Just this year, the first woman graduated from the Marine Corps’ highly challenging Winter Mountain Leaders Course.

It’s important to note that the Trump administration has been more than willing to bar other groups from the military, with a new policy that prevents people with gender dysphoria from enlisting if they are taking hormones or have transitioned. If women were eligible for the draft, the administration could conceivably use the decision to justify limiting women’s equal opportunities in the military, based on the same misguided and paternalistic reasoning that led to the combat exclusion rule in the first place.

It would be a serious mistake to reinstate the combat exclusion rule as a way to protect women from the draft. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has hinted that this option is still on the table. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis refused to shut down speculation that the military was reconsidering women’s role in the military, stating that the “jury was still out on” their capacity to fight.

The case in Texas was initiated by the National Coalition for Men, which argued that forcing only men to register for the draft made them feel disposable and reinforced “the stereotypes that support discrimination against men in other areas such as child custody, divorce, criminal sentencing, paternity fraud, education, public benefits, domestic violence services, due process rights, genital autonomy, and more.” While the argument that men suffer systemic gender-based discrimination is questionable, we agree that women should register for the draft if men are compelled to as well.

US District Judge Gray Miller ultimately got it right by declaring an all-male draft unconstitutional. The judge wrote, “Defendants have not carried the burden of showing that the male-only registration requirement continues to be substantially related to Congress’s objective or raising and supporting armies.”

The Supreme Court, after all, has held in several seminal cases outlawing gender-based discrimination that there must be an important governmental interest in having a different rule for men and women for it to stand. These decisions have been essential in the fight for equal treatment for women in the workplace. It’s hard then to argue that women deserve protection from military service that is not afforded to men when it comes to defending the nation in times of war. And it is equally hard to envision a future military conflict in which women would not play a vital role, especially since the nature of combat has shifted away from a traditional battlefield. The remarkable life of Shannon Kent, the Navy sailor, linguist and spy who was killed in a recent suicide bombing in Syria shows the contributions and sacrifices women have made.

Whether the nation needs a draft at all is a separate question and one under consideration by a national commission on military, national and public service, which will make a recommendation to Congress next year.

After years of successful gender integration in the military, it would be reactionary and disruptive to reimpose the combat exclusion rule. First, the argument that women wouldn’t be able to perform on the front lines even if they were drafted is moot. Registration would not alter the requirements of physical readiness for men and women in combat roles. The military has also developed standards for each combat position, and every woman who might fill one in wartime would have to meet that standard. If the government were to turn away women who have volunteered for these positions, we would be rejecting qualified service members who are willing and able to perform the tasks required. In a strong economy like the one today, qualified service members are hard to come by – after nearly two decades of wars and multiple deployments, we need everyone we can get.

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At this time, when women are working hard to erase the last vestiges of discrimination and assert themselves fully as leaders in business, in Congress and even as commander in chief of our military, American women must be willing to step up to our civic duty to defend the nation and embrace all aspects of the equal treatment we seek. If Uncle Sam needs men, then he needs women, too.