"Justice and the Highest Kind of Equality Require Discrimination": Citizenship, Dependency, and Conscription in the South, 1917-1919

By Hickel, K. Walter | The Journal of Southern History, November 2000 | Go to article overview

"Justice and the Highest Kind of Equality Require Discrimination": Citizenship, Dependency, and Conscription in the South, 1917-1919


Hickel, K. Walter, The Journal of Southern History


WORLD WAR I COMPLETED THE INTEGRATION OF THE SOUTH INTO THE American nation state. The United States, led by the first southern-born president since the Civil War, embarked upon a military undertaking of unprecedented magnitude that required the mobilization of the manpower and resources of the country as a whole. This imperative was most clearly expressed in the Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, which called for the first nationwide conscription in American history. The inclusion of southern men in the draft represented the final validation of their national citizenship, over half a century after secession.

During the war, however, the relationship between southerners and the nation state, newly consummated through conscription, was complicated by another, equally demanding relationship, one predicated on citizenship as well but also rooted in the political economy of family and region: the relationship between male draft registrants and their female and minor dependents.(1) Over the course of the nineteenth century, the support of dependents had gradually become an attribute of male citizenship under the conditions of an ascendant industrial capitalism and wage labor system. As men gained economic independence and social respect by earning a living wage in shops and factories located away from their homes, the labor of women, unpaid and performed in an increasingly differentiated domestic sphere, was devalued and rendered them dependent on male providers. By the Progressive Era, these antithetical conceptions of male citizenship and female dependency were firmly entrenched in political culture and public policy.(2) In creating the Selective Service System--whose emphasis on national efficiency, bureaucratic rationality, and the equal obligations of citizenship made it a quintessential Progressive institution--Congress recognized the economic ties and social conceptions of dependency within families and sought to place the burden of military service on men who could most easily bear it; that is, on those who had the fewest domestic commitments. The Selective Service Act thus allowed for the deferment of men who supplied their families' livelihood, by far the most common cause of draft deferment.

Determining the appropriate draft classification of men who claimed to support dependents required that the federal government promulgate for the first time a formal definition of dependency as a basis for the administration of public policy. The definition developed by draft officials bears out the contention of Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon that in the discourse on social welfare in the United States, dependency is "an ideological term" whose uses "serve to enshrine certain interpretations of social life as authoritative and to delegitimate and obscure others."(3) In keeping with the long-standing gendered dimension of citizenship, draft officials drew prescriptive, ideological distinctions between the roles of men and women within families, distinctions that cast men as wage earners and providers and assigned women to a separate domestic sphere. When they adjudicated dependency claims, the local draft boards who had original jurisdiction in these cases interpreted draft regulations issued from Washington in the light of their own beliefs about proper gender identities and relationships, formative beliefs that military mobilization, the expansion of the wartime state, and the conception of equal citizenship inherent in conscription otherwise might have undermined.

At the same time, the official definition of dependency had clear class-based and racial inflections: in the context of the political and racial economy of the South (where the majority of black draft registrants lived), the prevailing ideology of dependency and domesticity applied mainly to white, middle-class women. By contrast, many poor white and especially black women, for reasons of economic necessity, worked outside the home. Because they contributed to family income and daily breached the boundary of the domestic sphere, in the minds of draft officials these women could hardly be claimed as dependents by their registrant husbands, fathers, or sons. …

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"Justice and the Highest Kind of Equality Require Discrimination": Citizenship, Dependency, and Conscription in the South, 1917-1919
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