Syria raises questions about gender equality at home

Tacoma News TribuneSeptember 18, 2013 

While the potential for a military strike against Syria was looming large last week, I wondered if President Barack Obama ever thinks about the unintended consequences of such action for his daughters, Malia and Sasha, ages 15 and 12.

As a mother of two boys who are slightly older than the Obama girls (they are 17 and 14), I worry about unintended consequences a lot. After all, my sons are almost the age at which they have to register with the Selective Service.

I trust Obama’s judgment for many reasons, not the least of which is that we are at a similar place in life. We both graduated Harvard Law School around the same time, we both married classmates, we both have two children who are three years apart, we both passed the big “50” that signifies middle age and, of course, we both care about reinforcing the international norm against chemical weapon use.

While much still differentiates us (he is the president, after all), at this moment our world views are perhaps most differentiated by the fact that he has two girls and I have two boys. War means different things for our families at the most basic level.

Sociologists tell us that our roles as mothers and fathers influence our outlook, and there is evidence of that in the administration’s discussions about Syria. It has emphasized that Syrian President Bashar Assad gassed innocent children. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly empathized with the parents of those children because, as he said, he is a father.

There is much to applaud about Obama’s decision to delay an immediate strike in order to see if a satisfactory result can’t be reached through diplomacy.

Nonetheless, my point here is not to draw any conclusions about his approach to Syria. Nor am I even suggesting that if we were to engage in a military strike that it would lead to a broader war, or that a military strike would cause my sons to be drafted (after all, we do have an all-volunteer force at present).

Simply, my point is that our children’s genders make our calculations about the risks and benefits of a military strike in Syria different.

And that is wrong. It is as wrong as when members of Congress’ views about the Vietnam war were influenced by the fact that their children were exempted from war because they could afford college or graduate school.

All U.S. citizens, regardless of gender, should be eligible for the draft. It’s an idea whose time has come. In June, Norway became the first European and NATO country to make gender irrelevant to eligibility for conscription. The United States should be the second.

Obama reveres our Constitution undoubtedly as much, if not more, than those international norms he would be seeking to reinforce if he were to bomb Syria. The current exclusion of women from registration today violates the Constitution, although in 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion in Rostker v. Goldberg. Then, the Supreme Court permitted the discrimination because men and women had different roles in the armed forces and Congress could decide that “military need” trumped considerations “equity” in formulating the registration system.

A lot has changed in the military since then. A lot more women serve in the military, and their responsibilities have increased over time. Most importantly, the Pentagon this year changed its policy so that women can now serve in combat units.

U.S. Reps. Charles Rangel and James Moran introduced H.R. 747 earlier this year to amend the Military Selective Service Act to require that women register with the Selective Service System given the change in Pentagon policy.

The bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, but according to Rangel’s office, the bill is essentially dead. The administration needs to make it a priority to change the Selective Service System. It must work with members of Congress, like those who introduced H.R. 747, to make the registration system constitutional.

Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in Rostker called registering for the draft a “fundamental civic obligation.” My sons, and the president’s daughters (as well as the sons and daughters of members of Congress), should all be equally required to fulfill this fundamental civic obligation.

If all 18-year-olds had to register, then I would feel better about Obama’s judgment regarding Syria and other foreign policy issues, too.

Merle H. Weiner is the Philip H. Knight Professor of Law at the University of Oregon School of Law.

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