Why you should care

Because one of the most important ways that young Americans can serve their country remains open only to men.

“I want you,” an attractive, young woman dressed in an Uncle Sam costume tells her target audience. She’s not some sexy USO pinup girl from the 1940s — rather, this is a 21st century public service announcement from the U.S. government’s Selective Service, reminding men between the ages of 18 and 25 of their “duty by law as an American citizen” to register with the agency.

And, yes, “boys,” she is talking only to you: Registering for the draft remains an exclusively male requirement in the U.S. But maybe it shouldn’t be.

The U.S. hasn’t conscripted anyone since 1973, but registration is no trivial matter: Young men who don’t are subject to a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000. Plus, as the Selective Service’s video admonishes its audience, skipping registration comes with consequences: “No license. No student loan. No fun. Nada.” And the result of not having a job or an education? “No women!!!” Yup, that’s the sales pitch.

Excluding women from the requirement denies them a chance to be full and equal citizens.

But the concept of “no women” has become anathema on a number of levels. Nations like Israel and, most recently, Norway have made women draft eligible. And with the Pentagon’s decision to lift its long-standing ban on women in combat by January 2016, male-only registration has come under scrutiny in the United States. Polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans — including 61 percent of women — agree that women should be eligible for the draft.

So do an increasing number of men and women in uniform: The Reserve Officers Association, an influential congressional lobbying organization, recently drew up a resolution calling for U.S. women to register on their 18th birthday. Even some military experts who remain skeptical about women serving in combat units, like Anna Simons, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, see no logic in retaining a male-only registration requirement. “If society wants to pretend that men and women are interchangeable,” Simons tells OZY, “then the law needs to treat them as such.” There’s also the argument that excluding women from the draft denies them a chance to be full and equal citizens — and “puts American women in the category of children,” as Shelly Burgoyne, a veterans advocate and former Army officer, puts it.

The legal grounds are in limbo. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld male-only registration, but that was back in 1981, when few could imagine women in combat. News of their imminent inclusion has caused some consternation. Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, has argued that requiring women to register, like allowing them to serve in combat roles, “would ‘equalize’ tough training standards by driving them down, weakening the culture of the only military we have.” Given widespread resistance to conscription in any form, asking American women to register would be a political challenge.

One thing seems certain, though. If the law of the land changes, the Selective Service agency should rethink its commercials, in ways that make the draft sexy to women, too. “It only takes two minutes [to register], and it’s for your country, your opportunity, and your freedom,” the exuberant female Uncle Sam proclaims in the Selective Service video, shortly before filing her star-spangled nails.

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