If the words “Selective Service System” don’t ring a bell for you, it might be because you’re female. Maybe you have all daughters, too. For American boys and young men, however, “Selective Service” means “the draft,” and, yes, they still have to sign up for it.
I am a woman, so theoretically the draft should not keep me up at night. But I have three sons who will be 18 faster than I care to think about, and their loss of choice in this matter is something I’ve lost sleep over, even though both my dad and husband chose to serve.
And here’s the thing: No one talks about Selective Service — at all. Most people don’t even know it exists. So let me explain.
The draft ended in January 1973, but seven years later, during the height of the Cold War, President Jimmy Carter reinstated Selective Service registration for all American men ages 18-25. Within 30 days of a boy’s 18th birthday, he is required by law to register with the Selective Service so that the government will know his whereabouts should we ever need an active draft again. The penalty for not registering is up to five years in prison or a $250,000 fine.
That’s right: Your son — and even you (for aiding his crime) — can go to jail if he does not register for the Selective Service within 30 days of becoming an adult. Yet even in the likely event that that doesn’t happen, he still can’t apply for government jobs or financial aid for college unless he is registered.
In case these first paragraphs had you wondering what country you live in, you are not alone. President Ronald Reagan was opposed to Selective Service, and during a presidential debate in 1979 he said that the law requiring registration “rests on the assumption that your kids belong to the state. … That assumption isn’t a new one. The Nazis thought it was a great idea.”
But it’s not your “kids” who belong to the state; it’s just your boys. Even though women have fought for and earned the right to serve in combat positions in the U.S. military, America’s girls are not forced to register with Selective Service.
I like to picture our government wiping its imaginary brow over the fact that the Selective Service System and its website, www.sss.gov, don’t get much attention. Because if they did, people surely would have their hairs on end over the idea of this process and the language surrounding it. The webpage reads like something out of the 1950s with gems like, “Registration: It’s What a Man’s Got to Do.”
The website also dances around the fact that women are not forced to register, even though it clearly explains its position on transgenders: If you were born a female and later became a man, you do not have to register. If you were born a male and later became a woman, you do have to register.
And what if you have only one son to carry on the family name, so, you know, you’d like him to live? The SSS has an answer for that, too: “Contrary to popular belief ‘only sons,’ ‘the last son to carry the family name,’ and ‘sole surviving sons’ must still register with the Selective Service System and they can be drafted.”
Read that last part again: “they can be drafted.”
Don’t worry, your daughters are still safe. They can choose to serve or not. In fact, even if your son is disabled and in a wheelchair, he must register. But America’s healthiest daughters do not.
If you’re wondering how this law exists in the U.S.A., the website offers this: “By registering all eligible men, Selective Service ensures a fair and equitable draft, if ever required.”
Wait, aren’t girls eligible now, too, since they can serve in every position of the military?
Some people argue that women shouldn’t be eligible because society needs them safe at home to procreate. Others say not every woman wants to be in the military. But couldn’t both of these arguments be made for men as well? Can we really cherry-pick equality this way?
By luck and chance, I gave birth to all boys. Now, as my boys move toward becoming men, our government tells me it has the legal right to force all of my sons into service — and maybe death — for our country.
My friends with girls can sleep well knowing that not only are their daughters not eligible for the draft, they’ve also earned the right to be in the military if that’s their choice. Choice and freedom surrounds them at every turn.
But if we believe that women can do anything men can do, it’s time for girls to register, too. And if we aren’t ready to register women, then the Selective Service’s draft will never be “fair and equitable.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.