During the thunderous applause that met President Carter’s call for a revived Selective Service System in his State of the Union message to Congress, one member of the House sat stonily silent: Democrat Patricia Schroeder of Colorado. Just last September the 39-year-old member of the Armed Services Committee had stage-managed the defeat in the House of a proposal to bring back draft registration—with the strong support of Jimmy Carter.
A Denver lawyer who was swept into office on an antiwar platform in 1972, Schroeder feels no differently about draft registration, or saber rattling, today than she did before. But now her position is anguishingly complicated by an opportunity to make a statement on another deep personal commitment: women’s equality. She believes her daughter, Jamie, 9, should have all the rights—plus the duties—of her son, Scott, 13. “In general I strenuously oppose registering young people,” says Schroeder. “However, I believe that women are full, participating, responsible citizens. If registration does occur, women would be registered.”
The President has promised to announce his decision on that issue by this weekend. First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Army Secretary Clifford Alexander are already on record as believing women should be included. Schroeder suggests a prerequisite, declaring: “Registration will be unthinkable unless we are recognized as first-class citizens by passage of the ERA.” At the same time, she can’t resist sniping at those who palpitate at the thought of women in arms, like diehard anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. “I’m shocked that she wraps herself in the flag and states that American women don’t want to help this country,” she says. “The fearmongering over whether or not women will have to register is based on a false assumption that women are—or should be—insensitive to the national needs. In fact, women have made impressive contributions during times of strife.”
A historical study of women warriors by the Department of the Army bears Schroeder out. Women waged hand-to-hand combat in defense of King Gezo of Dahomey in 1851; guarded the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks in 1917; and fought, 800,000 strong, in the Soviet army in World War II. Furthermore, the Selective Service was preparing to register U.S. women when the war ended in 1945. One army did have a problem with female soldiers: During its war for independence, Israel pulled them off the front lines in fear that Arabs would fight to the death rather than be taken prisoner by women soldiers. Still, as Schroeder points out: “The fact is that 80 to 90 percent of all military positions are noncombat anyway.”
Schroeder hopes her own conflict on the issue will soon be moot and that no one will have to register, male or female. “Registration is a World War II response, and we need a 1980 solution,” she argues. “A draft doesn’t produce the people we need to satisfy our real manpower shortage. We need specialists to keep our jets flying.” What she does favor is a contingency plan for mobilizing civilian computer operators and other high-technology experts in case of war. She also proposes that the $10 million earmarked for the Selective Service System should go instead to beefing up the Reserves and upgrading the volunteer Army: “It’s outrageous that many enlisted people qualify for food stamps because military salaries are so low.”
Schroeder’s cause, however, may well be lost; one colleague on the Armed Services Committee now predicts easy passage for draft registration. Schroeder is not yet resigned to the Selective Service System, but she is practical enough to accept the irony that her next battle will be to double its rolls.