By including women in his call for military registration, President Carter is making them an offer they cannot refuse. They are none too pleased.
"If equal rights is all about insisting that women should be as warmongering as men, then we've blown it," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and an opponent of draft registration for men and women.
Conservatives and liberals, from Phyllis Schlafly to Bella Abzug, are speaking out against a draft. But feminists acknowledge that if men are left to fight future wars alone, the historic drive for equality of the sexes will be crippled. The cultural message for young American women, if there is a men-only draft, will be that sexual equality does not extend to the most serious matters such as national defense.
"It would put women back on the pedestal they've just begun to climb off," said Holly Knox, director of the Project on Equal Educational Rights.
The congressional debate may be preempted by legal arguments. "Even without the as-yet unratified Equal Right Amendment, the ACLU believes that under current rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, it would be unconstitutional to subject men and only men to registration," said Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU and the Women's Equity Action League are discussing plans to bring suit should Congress refuse to include women.
The issue has caused anguish among feminists, torn between a desire for equality and their traditional pacifism. Many women's-group activists are veterans of the antiwar movement.
Betty Friedan, author of the landmark book, "The Feminine Mystique," shouted with anger in a phone interview from New York. "It's a red herring! The issue isn't whether women should be drafted. Every woman I know, from feminists to right-to-lifers, is opposed to the draft, period."
Friedan has two sons and a daughter of draft age, "and my sons' lives are just as precious to me as my daughter's," she said.
Schroeder led the Carter administration's fight against registration last fall. "I was a little ticked," she said yesterday, "to find Carter changed his mind. Then a White House lobbyist told me. 'Don't worry, you can carry the part about women.'
"I said, 'are you kidding me?' What a cheap shot. I'm not going to be used. I've never believed women should follow men into militarism. Equality isn't sameness. We came to Congress to make a difference. We didn't come to be the mirror image of men. And we don't want to fight a war for a full tank of gas."
Schroeder said she would vote against including women, even if Congress agrees to register men. Her motive is tactical: If Congress passes an all-male registratin she expects the courts to knock it down. "If we put women in, we save registration from a legal challenge," she said.
More typical, however, is the reaction of Iris Mitgang, a California civil rights lawyer who heads the National Women's Political Caucus.
"We are opposed to the draft for men or women," she said. "But women have been involved in the military since the Revolutionary War. We've been in combat zones without getting combat pay. It is not consistent for feminists to oppose registration of women."
The emotionalism has already begun to surface. Mitgang, for instance, said she was asked by one reporter whether she favors putting pregnant women in tanks. "It's goofy," she said. "You don't put pregnant men in tanks. In fact most parents, male or female would be excluded from the draft."
Recent editorials in such papers as 'the Wall Street Journal against drafting women and the nervous opposition in Congress are "symbolic of the depth of the struggle," Mitgang said. "We're talking about 5,000 years of stereotypes. Putting women in combat is the extreme changing of the presumption of what women are all about."
Rep. Barbara Mikulski, Baltimore Democrat, favor registration of skilled adults rather than untrained youth. She predicts "a terrible backlash" if women are not registered.
"I come from a working class neighborhood," Mikulski said. "We've told the guys in the unions and on the construction sites to move over and make room for sisterhood.If the women aren't registered, the guys will say, 'Jesus, you want to be equal on the assembly line.' It could cause a lot of anger and resentment."
If the military has historically been a great leveler, bringing all classes and races together, a draft could hasten equality for women, some argue. Integration of the military helped break down racial stereotypes. Not until 18-year-olds began dying in Vietman were 18-year-olds allowed to vote.
"It's very important for men and women to work together and fight together in the military," said Holly Knox. "It will break down the perception of women as weak."
Carol Parr, head of the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL), said registration for women "is an opportunity to show we mean business and will take on responsibilities. If women don't register we're back to having two classes -- men as the protectors, women as the protectees. Until society accepts a vision of women as powerful warriors, we're not ready for equality."
WEAL, together with ERAmerica and the League of Women Voters, is neutral on whether there should be registration at all. Other major women's groups, such as he National Organization for Women and Women USA, a group formed by Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Yvonne Burke and Patsy Mink, adamantly oppose registration.
Some are suggesting that women should refuse to register until the constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights is ratified by the states. "When American women have equality of opportunity, it will be time enough to talk about equality of sacrifice," Abzug said.
The issue of drafting women could work against ratification of ERA, feminists fear, by injecting even more emotionalism into that debate.
Whether women are registered or not, they already make up 8 percent of the armed forces. The 150,000 include women who are already training for hazardous support positions, though the are barred from combat assignments. They parachute from planes, pilot helicopters, launch missiles, carry M16 rifles, throw hand grenades and drive trucks -- all activities within combat zones.
Nonetheless, feminists are by and large repelled by the idea of more armed force. "If women were in the decision-making positions, I doubt that the solution to the current situation would be couched in military terms," said Mitgang. "Women would look for other solutions."