When I was about ten, in the 60s when the draft was a big thing, I remember getting in a big argument with my father, Henry L. Finch, about drafting women.
I told him that if men were being drafted I thought women should be drafted too—it was only fair. A pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in World War II and an early Chair of the War Resisters League, my father was horrified.
Daddy reminded me passionately that women were the kinder sex and were morally superior to men. He informed me that killing goes against women’s nature because it is the opposite of motherhood. When I argued back, just as passionately, that women are just as full and complex human beings as men are and that putting us on pedestals doesn’t help anything, he doubled down by appealing to my sense of honor and selflessensss. Exempting women from the draft, he let me know, was a central factor—maybe the central factor— saving our nation from surrender to total barbarity. If the day ever came that women were drafted, I was told, it would be a sign that our culture had lost all its conscience as far as war was concerned.
Of course, I felt the opposite. I felt that keeping women out of the draft was a way of artificially displacing the burden of conscience onto us at the expense of truth, fairness, and moral evolution. Once women were drafted, we would be that much closer to completely understanding the truth about war—and to respecting women.
Now that day has come. I wonder how his view would have evolved by now. And I wonder how my great-aunt Jessie Wallace Hughan, who founded the War Resisters League and a staunch supporter of women’s rights, would feel about this step if she were alive today.
My own view has stayed the same. Anyone who is horrified at the thought of sending a daughter into war should, it seems to me, feel exactly as awful about doing the same to a son.
Here is a poem I wrote during the first Iraq war, which broke just after my first baby was born in November 1990.
GULF WAR AND CHILD: A CURSE
He is sleeping, his fingers all curled,
his belly pooled open,
his legs gathered, still
in their bent-blossom victory.
I couldn’t speak of “war” (though we all do),
if I were still the woman who gave birth
to you soft-footed, with your empty hand
and calling heart, that border of new clues.
May the hard birth our two heartbeats unfurled
for two nights that lasted as long as this war
make all sands rage, until the mouth of war
drops its cup, this bleeding gift we poured.
From Spells: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan UP, 2013)