For a decade the US Supreme Court has been steadily tossing out laws that discriminate between the sexes. This week it hears arguments on the most far-reaching question yet: Should women be required to register for the military draft?
Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and probably the nation's foremost spokesperson for women's rights, says that the answer is yes.
The all-male draft registration "says to every woman, 'The government doesn't need you in time of national emergency,'" Ms. Smeal said recently in her Washington headquarters. "It says that the worst-qualified man is better than any woman."
By excluding every woman, the Military Selective Service Act, dating back to 1948, "reinforces the stereotype that she's unable to defend herself and is weak ," said the NOW president.
Moreover, the male-only rule means that "every man is at risk and is entitled to more benefits."
When she lobbies for the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, Smeal says she often meets with state legislators who tell her: "You women have it easy. Wait til you have to fight in wars."
Now she wants the Supreme Court to furnish her rebuttal by opening registration to both sexes.
Although Smeal claims strong backing from her membership, not all women are eager to be included in the draft. Kathleen Lawlor, a 22-year-old Washington homemaker, charges that drafting women would bring "chaos" to the military and harm to families. She is one of 16 women who filed a legal brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the all-male draft.
"Women do not have the physical capability in terms of upper-body strength strength and endurance," Mrs. Lowlor told the Monitor, adding that women who volunteer may be able to handle the physical tasks, but not all women can.
"Women are going to turn to men and say, 'I just can't load this truck. I'm tired,'" she said. "I know that's what I would do."
Meanwhile, in a Capitol Hill office, a military expert has difficulty even taking the issue of drafting women seriously.
The expert, a congressional aide, pointed out that the case now before the Supreme Court -- known as Rostker v. Goldberg -- touches only the issue of whether women can be registered for the draft, and not whether they can be drafted or sent to war.
Since the armed services have bars against women going into combat, the aide said that there is no reason to draft them -- or even register them.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case to overturn the all-male registration, lays out extensive evidence from the military itself that women are serving well in the armed forces. Its lawyers point out that women could serve in many jobs and thus free up more men for combat.
But practical arguments are only part of the case, which hinges on how much discrimination between men and women is constitutional. When the civil liberties union first brought the suit, the Vietnam war was still raging. A group of men were protesting that the draft discriminated against them, since women were not included.
The war wound down, and the draft ended, and Rostker v. Goldberg was almost forgotten until President Carter reinstated draft registration last year. A few days later, on July 18, a three-judge panel in a Philadelphia district court ruled that the draft law unlawful discriminates by sex.
After 10 years in the courts, the case will get a full hearing before the nation's high court on March 24. The justices are expected to make their ruling by late June or early July.