Requiring only young men to register for military conscription is an obvious instance of sexism in the U.S. today. Women today are an important part of the all-volunteer U.S. military. One out of every seven soldiers on active duty is a woman, and one out of every forty-three soldiers killed in the Iraq war has been a woman (see data notes and references). Women are admitted to all the U.S. military academies, and the U.S. military includes female generals, female fighter pilots, and many other women doing difficult, dangerous jobs. Even if one believes that women should be excluded from some military jobs, the military still could easily employ an equal number of men and women. Laws that compel only men to serve in the military cannot rationally withstand even a cursory examination of current facts.
This sexism attracts almost no public concern. In 1981 in Rostker v. Goldberg, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld male-only Selective Service registration. In light of current circumstances, that decision might best be seen as following in the line of Dred Scott v. Sandford. One can find some law professors arguing that male-only Selective Service registration discriminates against women. Occasionally newspaper articles describe middle-aged male government workers getting fired because they failed to register for Selective Service as young men many years earlier (see, e.g. here and here). More generally, most young women probably don’t want to be legally obligated to register for compulsory military service. While male-only Selective Service registration reflects a long, under-appreciated (at least among law professors) history of constraining and devaluing men’s lives, most young men probably think that registering is merely a bureaucratic requirement with no real implications. Heated public discussions of sexism tend to focus on issues such as the share of women holding science and engineering professorships, or the media’s treatment of female candidates for high public offices. Neither the media, nor young women and young men, nor the legal academy have much interest today in sexist Selective Service registration.
An extraordinary situation that produced a military draft would give Selective Service sexism much greater significance and make that sexism much more difficult to address. While historically normal, being forced into the military would be a life-shaping change for young men in the U.S. today. At the same time, circumstances demanding such change would not be propitious for affirming in new ways ideals of equality between women and men. In the British Commonwealth during World War I, men who did not “volunteer” to serve in the military were shamed with White Feather campaigns. Complaining about sexism in compulsory military service in the midst of a national emergency would be much more difficult for men than personally seeking to avoid military service. The latter was called cowardice, the former might be called subversion or treason.
Male-only selection service registration displays an interesting pattern of circumstantial entrenchment. Because most persons consider male-only selective service registration to be unimportant, its unreasonableness in current circumstances doesn’t matter. Circumstances that would make male-only Selective Service registration important would also make asserting its unreasonableness infeasible.