WASHINGTON – Uniformed women have yet to make it onto the battlefield, but that doesn't mean the armed services wouldn't swoop up a few good females if the war on terror took a turn for the worse and the government pulled out the draft.
Re-instituting the draft is unlikely, government officials say, but if it does happen, the sheer number of female workers in the health care field would require they be called up, said a U.S. Selective Service System official.
"Based on our numbers for a worst-case scenario, if we had to do such a draft, it would include women or you just won't get the numbers of health care workers you needed," said Lew Brodsky, director of congressional and government affairs for the SSS.
The idea of opening the draft to women could spark debate, however, seeing that their role in the military at all has been a contested topic for the last 20 years.
"There's been a strong effort on the part of women to increase their role in the military services and they've done so successfully," said Georgetown University professor Audrey Kurth Cronin. "But I think culturally there might be a lot of negative feelings among political parts of the spectrum, and possibly more among men than women."
Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them
Health care workers were part of the draft between 1950 and 1973 to fight the Korean and Vietnam wars. An estimated 30,000 doctors, fearing they would be drafted, signed on as officers. Only about 100 doctors were drafted outright.
The draft was formally phased out in 1975 with the end of the Vietnam War, but in 1979 — after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan — Congress started requiring men to register with the Selective Service. Currently, 13.5 million men are signed up.
In 1988, Congress directed SSS to begin developing the Health Care Personnel Delivery System to put into place a back-up structure for medical readiness in case of a widespread crisis like a nuclear attack or a protracted war overseas.
Four years later, SSS determined that if the health care draft were re-opened, SSS would need a database of 3.2 million skilled health care workers from which to draw 73,000 draftees from 60 specialties.
The 2000 Census estimates that 6.6 million of the 8.5 million health care practitioners, technical and support occupations, are women. Though the database was never collected, Brodsky said the "preponderance of women" in the health care field makes it inevitable to include them in any future database development.
What's Good for the Goose ...
That inevitable inclusion is good news for feminists, says one academician, since feminists have fought for equal treatment in every other area of society.
"I would hope the radical feminists would see this as part of their idea of equality," said Rita Simon, a professor at American University and member of the libertarian Women's Freedom Network.
Simon said drafting women into the military should not be exclusive to health care.
"I think we should have women called up as much as anyone else is. I mean young women — I don't mean mothers — 18 to 25, like the young men. I think they should share the burden. It's completely compatible with what the women's movement talks about."
Cronin, however, is not so quick to endorse such a move. Since not all women feel strongly about pushing equal rights in the military, she said she doubts women would jump on the idea of a draft.
"I think there would be a large polarization of women and would divide them even more than they are today, and that would be bad for women."