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  • A Rough Draft:Selective Service in the Women's History Classroom
  • Christopher Capozzola (bio)

Well, I sure guessed wrong. When I taught "Gender and the Law in U.S. History" to twenty-three undergraduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in spring 2004, I prepared myself for discussions of controversial subjects—cross-racial adoption, polygamy, abortion. What I didn't expect was that the semester's most heated discussion would be about Selective Service. The experience convinced me that conscription can be a valuable tool for teaching in U.S. women's history and women's studies classes—and a way to connect history teaching with political and social issues that touch the lives of students right now.1

We didn't start out by talking about conscription. In fact, our topic for the evening was United States v. Virginia (1996), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was a denial of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Nearly all my students found Virginia's solution, the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, patently absurd; they were skeptical of the notion that a small, underfunded program for women could match the history, tradition—or endowment—of VMI, and they objected to the state's argument that "gender-based developmental differences" meant that few female students would benefit from VMI's "adversative method." If women wished to go to VMI, they should be able to do so.2

We briefly discussed some precedent cases dealing with gender and military service. Students universally admired the Court's reasoning in Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), one of the first gender equity cases of the 1970s, in which the Supreme Court considered the military's policy of assuming that the wife of a serviceman was "dependent" on her husband (regardless of how much money either one brought home), while husbands of servicewomen were required to demonstrate that they were dependent on their wives for more than half of the household's income. The Court, responding to the arguments of a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ruled this a violation of equal protection.3 Students did make distinctions, however. They generally sided with the Court in our discussion of Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney, a 1979 case in which the Court ruled that [End Page 148] blanket preferences for veterans in civil service hiring did not represent de facto discrimination against women; students agreed with Justice Potter Stewart that "veteran status is not uniquely male."4 Indirectly, and without really articulating it as such, students seemed to grope toward a consistent liberal theory of military service: if Shannon Faulkner wanted to go to The Citadel, she should be able to, but she shouldn't have complained after she got there; women should have full access to the veterans' welfare state, but only after reporting for duty.

Then, offhandedly, I changed the subject from VMI to Selective Service. Should women be required to register for the draft? Many continued their line of reasoning, arguing that women's exclusion from registration for Selective Service was a clear case of discrimination on the basis of sex. They restated the 1980 Congressional testimony of National Organization for Women member Judy Goldsmith that "omission from the registration and draft ultimately robs women of the right to first-class citizenship."5 Equal rights, they insisted, demand equal obligations. Others pursued a pragmatic line of argument. Women can fight and kill as surely as men, and changing technologies of warfare have opened roles for women that might not have existed in previous eras of hand-to-hand combat and trench warfare. One student pursued this approach in his final paper, in which he challenged the Court's reasoning in Rostker v. Goldberg (1981) that since the purpose of the Selective Service program was to identify combat-ready troops, and federal law excluded women from combat, the exclusion of women from registration was a matter of bureaucratic convenience, not, the Court claimed, the "byproduct of a traditional way of thinking about women."6 The changing facts of women's volunteer military service, he argued, had undermined the Court...