Last year, longstanding men’s rights organization the National Coalition For Men (NCFM) won a lawsuit challenging the legality of the male-only requirement to register for the military draft, a decision its attorney described as “long overdue.” “While historical restrictions on women in the military may have justified past discrimination,” the Texas judge noted, “men and women are now ‘similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft.’” (Selective Service in the U.S. requires registration from men between the ages of 18 to 25, a mechanism that facilitates drafting should such a situation arise in the future, and failure to do so can mean missing out on financial aid, federal grants and loans, certain government benefits, eligibility for most federal employment, and for immigrants, eligibility for citizenship.)
The Coalition’s president Harry Crouch celebrated the decision as being “all about equitable treatment,” but the Southern Poverty Law Center takes a more skeptical view of this kind of litigation, arguing that Coalition members use cases like these to challenge what they perceive as discrimination in favor of women but otherwise offer little help to men other than blaming women for their woes. In other words, their true aim isn’t to uplift men but to challenge the few social and legal protections in place for women, in an effort to maintain male supremacy. “It’s curious that the NCFM would choose not to take on the injustice of Selective Service as a whole, rather than using its lawsuit as what looks like a pure expression of spite,” Kathi Valeii argues in the Pacific Standard. “Instead of solidarity against illiberal conscription, the NCFM has chosen to center its efforts on ensuring that women will be unfairly affected by forced service too. It’s a sort of ‘you want it all, feminists? Here, let us help you,’ move.”
And sure enough, some evidence of this underlying motivation was revealed in a statement made by the Coalition’s attorney after the judgement. “Even without a draft, men still face prison, fines and denial of federal loans for not registering or for not updating the government of their whereabouts,” he said. “Since women will be required to register with the Selective Service, they should face the same repercussions as men for any noncompliance.”
The role of women in the military has long been aa area where ideas about gender are contested. Conservatives with a traditional view tend to hold that women are too frail to be in combat, and that their proper role is on the home tending to domestic duties. In 2012, Discover News reported, “[According to researchers], traditional attitudes make many people both uncomfortable with the idea of women fighting and unable to handle the image of mothers coming home in body bags,” and that “there are also concerns that women will interfere with group bonding and cohesion — the same arguments that long interfered with the integration of African Americans and gay people into the military.”
Arkansas Congressman Tom Cotton said in 2013 that “to have women serving in infantry could impair the mission-essential tasks of those units” and that “it’s nature, upper body strength, and physical movements, and speed, and endurance, and so forth” that make women poorer soldiers. Across the pond, former Colonel Richard Kemp agreed, saying women would be a “weak link” and claiming many soldiers would quit if the “social engineering experiment” went ahead.
These conservative ideas about female combatants tend to prompt a liberal feminist defense of women in combat along the following lines of: “Preventing women who pass the same physical tests as their male counterparts from serving in the combat infantry is sexism, plain and simple.” Advocates for women’s equality in the military, including the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), argue that, not only are women in the military subject to high levels of discrimination, harassment and sexual assault, but they’re also prevented from upward career progression. “Many of the positions currently banning women are necessary for career development and success,” says a SWAN representative. “SWAN has dubbed this the ‘brass ceiling’ that the combat exclusion policy places over women’s advancement in the Armed Services.” Accordingly, civil rights organizations like the ACLU work in the courts and in Congress to end the combat exclusion policies that prevent women from serving.
It’s this liberal feminist bid to have women among the highest ranks of all industries and professions that most incenses men’s rights activists. But MRAs always ignore two key realities in their “advocacy” for men: (1) The fact that almost all of the difficulties associated with being a man, including higher rates of imprisonment, punitive child support and the burden of the draft, are borne by poor, non-white and otherwise marginalized men; and (2) that not all feminists are liberals concerned merely with ensuring women occupy the highest roles in society — those who, in the words of Armed Services Committee member Jackie Speier, “want women to be treated precisely like men are treated.” MRAs ignore Marxist and other left feminists who aren’t just concerned with the simplistic idea of equality promoted by liberals — summed up beautifully by the HIRE MORE WOMEN GUARDS tweet — but rather of justice for the entire working class (and, necessarily, for the marginalized groups within it).
Left feminists don’t simply argue, like MRAs do, that the draft should be gender-neutral; they go much further in opposing imperial wars, pointing out the disproportionate toll of conscription on poor and black men, ending the economic difficulties that make military service an attractive financial option for working-class people, supporting conscientious objectors and arguing that, instead of extending the draft to women, we should end the draft for all genders.
“American militarism intensifies conflict and produces needless misery and bloodshed abroad,” Rivera Sun argues in CounterPunch. “It also starves our own populace of resources that should be going to good public education, health care, housing and jobs. There’s nothing feminist about drafting women. While we support equal access to opportunity and employment in all sectors of the economy, gender equality cannot be achieved by forcing women against their will into the military. Involuntary conscription — for anyone — is an affront to liberty.”
This kind of advocacy — for marginalized men, women and people more generally — embarrasses MRAs and exposes the pettiness of their political aims, which is why they tend to position themselves solely in opposition to liberal feminists clapping about women guards. To seriously engage with leftist critiques of the military, draft, imperialism, economic conscription and gender essentialism would risk exposing powerless men to a group of advocates who, unlike MRAs, actually have their interests at heart.