Initial Thoughts on Early and Mid-20th Century Conscription…

The following includes a few initial thoughts on early and mid-20th century conscription as it impacts the development of military gender.

Conscription and the Selective Service Program played an important role in the construction of the American military image. In “The Evolution of Military Conscription in the United States,” Timothy Perri argues that the American government decided to rely on drafting soldiers rather than requesting volunteers because required service cost less money than providing sufficient enticement for recruiting adequate numbers of volunteers.[1] Dorit Geva largely agrees with Perri’s interpretation but adds that gender lay at the center of decisions about the methods utilized to organize and maintain the Selective Service Program during the twentieth century in her article, “Selective Service, the Gender-Ordered Family, and the Rational Informality of the American State.” Geva highlights assumptions about the economic impact of removing male heads-of-household on American society. The American federal government entrusted local draft boards with making decisions about the needs of individual families and whether or not they could manage to function without male breadwinners. These assumptions about family economics shaped the demographics of men selected for service, initially resulting in the drafting of larger numbers of single men, as well as disproportionate numbers of non-white men, regardless of marital status.[2]

In “Drafting for Domesticity: American Deferment Policy During the Cold War, 1948-1965,” Amy J. Rutenberg also addresses the decisions the American government made regarding draft deferment. Rutenberg argues that throughout the course of the Cold War, the Selective Service became increasingly concerned, not only with the demographics of drafted soldiers, but also the recruitment of civilians for occupations necessary for national security, like science and engineering. This shift in focus supported a change in American masculinity toward more individualistic, civilian-based manhood focused on fatherhood and away from a more nationalistic military-based manhood centered on military service. While military manhood remained, the prevailing ideals of American masculinity came to incorporate civilian aspects as well.[3]

While the concept of drafting women for non-combat positions occasionally came up during the twentieth century, the idea never gained traction because most Americans believed women’s military service should remain a personal choice and that women’s primary place continued to be in the home. Geva also indicates that the association of military service with a masculine warrior ideal frequently contrasted with understanding of women’s complimentary, but very separate, place in protecting domestic and family life, and Rutenberg confirms this in her identification of fatherhood and domesticity as growing in importance to masculine ideals into the mid-twentieth century.[4] This partially explains why drafting women did not become a popular idea, despite the fact that most people saw their economic labor as less vital to supporting a family’s economic welfare. Americans looked past women’s normative assignment to the domestic sphere to take advantage of their labor, but could not justify making the use of their labor mandatory at a federal level.

The closest women came to draft registration during the early to mid-twentieth century occurred at the state level. For example, during World War I, New York arranged to take a census of male and female residents between the ages of 16 and 50 in order to compile information on potentially useful skills that could be used for national defense if necessary. The types of information requested focused on vehicle operation and maintenance, knowledge of languages, and operation of communications technology, and this information appeared in a June 1917 New York Times article, “State Registration Plans Completed: Men and Women Between 16 and 50 Years Old Have 15 Days in Which to Enroll, Many Questions Asked, New York Will Know What Each Person is Best Able to Do in War Service.” The state wanted to be prepared in the event of large-scale labor mobilization.[5] When broader drafting of women occasionally came up, it generally requested drafting nurses for necessary positions with the military, the Red Cross, and civilian areas with nurse shortages. Even so, these plans never reached fruition, as in the April 1918 New York Times article, “Opposes Draft Plan to Obtain Nurses: Woman Superintendent at Bellevue Hospital Asserts There is No Shortage, Wants Standards Kept Up, Nursing Profession as a Whole, Miss Hilliard Asserts, Does Not Favor Shortening of Training.”[6]

The idea of drafting women returned briefly during World War II, though again, as in the previous war, the concept never gained traction. A May 1942 article in the New York Times by Nona Baldwin, “President Shelves Draft of Women: McNutt Finds More Applying for War Work Than There Are Jobs to Be Filled, Listing Off Indefinitely, About 2,000,000 Industrial Women Workers May Be Made Available by Conversions,” reported that the most recent suggestion to draft women for civilian war work failed because an adequate number of women volunteered to accept needed positions. Drafting women remained unnecessary.[7] Some Americans wanted to draft nurses, but, as in World War I, the idea failed to pass Congress, detailed in a February 1945 New York Times article titled “Association Fights Draft of Nurses: Miss Densford, Its Head, Tells House Group Voluntary Plan Should Be Tried, Or Take in All Women, Col. Ijams Pictures Plight of 65,560 Veterans in Hospitals With Only 4,000 Nurses.”[8]

During the Korean War, the issue of conscripting women for national service reappeared again. A January 1950 New York Times article by Bess Furman, “Equal Rights Plea Put on War Basis: Cain Tells Senate a Future Draft Should Ignore Sex, Cites Russian Women,” reported on recent consideration of the Equal Rights Amendment and the impact such an amendment might have on drafting women in the next war, which loomed on the horizon. Opponents questioned whether an Equal Rights Amendment might negatively impact women, removing needed legal protections.[9] In “No Draft of Women for Defense Seen,” an article in a February 1951 issue of the New York Times, the author reports on comments from Dr. Esther B. Strong of the Department of Defense’s personnel policy board that no draft would be established for women. She said, ‘They will be recruited on a voluntary basis and will serve in jobs where they can render most effective service-in nursing, in communications and other necessary duties,” she said. “While doing this they will serve as partners with the men in the fight for democracy, without losing their identity as women.’[10] As in many of the previous articles, the author showed that many individuals supported women’s contributions to the war but not compulsory participation in war work. At no time during the early and mid-twentieth century did Congress approve drafting women for any military or civilian positions.

[1] Timothy J. Perri, “The Evolution of Military Conscription in the United States,” The Independent Review 17, no. 3 (2013): 429-439.

[2] Dorit Geva, “Selective Service, the Gender-Ordered Family, and the Rational Informality of the American State,” American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 1 (2015): 171-204.

[3] Amy J. Rutenberg, “Drafting for Domesticity: American Deferment Policy During the Cold War, 1948-1965,” Cold War History 13, no. 1 (2013): 1-20.

[4] Dorit Geva, “Selective Service, the Gender-Ordered Family, and the Rational Informality of the American State,” American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 1 (2015): 171-204; and Amy J. Rutenberg, “Drafting for Domesticity: American Deferment Policy During the Cold War, 1948-1965,” Cold War History 13, no. 1 (2013): 1-20.

[5] “State Registration Plans Completed: Men and Women Between 16 and 50 Years Old Have 15 Days in Which to Enroll, Many Questions Asked, New York Will Know What Each Person is Best Able to Do in War Service,” New York Times, June 8, 1917, 3.

[6] “Opposes Draft Plan to Obtain Nurses: Woman Superintendent at Bellevue Hospital Asserts There is No Shortage, Wants Standards Kept Up, Nursing Profession as a Whole, Miss Hilliard Asserts, Does Not Favor Shortening of Training,” New York Times, April 7, 1918, 10.

[7] Nona Baldwin, “President Shelves Draft of Women: McNutt Finds More Applying for War Work Than There Are Jobs to Be Filled, Listing Off Indefinitely, About 2,000,000 Industrial Women Workers May Be Made Available by Conversions,” New York Times, May 2, 1942, 8. More examples appear in the following: Louis Stark, “Roosevelt Studies Registry of Women as Manpower Aid: Compulsory Enrollment Being Considered to Show How They Might Aid War Work, Draft Not Planned Now, President Cites Need for More Labor and Lack of Data on What the Women Can Do,” New York Times, October 31, 1942, 1; and Kathleen McLaughlin, “Draft for Women? National War Service Bill Fails to Win Endorsement of Women in Congress,” New York Times, April 11, 1943, X11.

[8] “Association Fights Draft of Nurses: Miss Densford, Its Head, Tells House Group Voluntary Plan Should Be Tried, Or Take in All Women, Col. Ijams Pictures Plight of 65,560 Veterans in Hospitals With Only 4,000 Nurses,” New York Times, February 10, 1945, 12.

[9] Bess Furman, “Equal Rights Plea Put on War Basis: Cain Tells Senate a Future Draft Should Ignore Sex, Cites Russian Women,” New York Times, January 24, 1950, 20. The Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1972, but ratification never occurred. Another article addressing the potential draft of women appears in, “Federation Backs Draft of Women,” New York Times, July 12, 1951, 28.

[10] “No Draft of Women For Defense Seen,” New York Times, February 16, 1951, 12.