The United States Marine Corps was founded November 10, 1775. One hundred forty-three years later, in 1918, women were authorized to serve in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve performing mostly clerical duties to free up male Marines to serve overseas. That year, Opha Mae Johnson was the first woman to enlist, joining the Marine Corps Reserve in the rank of Private. Following her example, over 300 women, known as "Marinettes" enlisted and served until the end of the WWI. Opha Mae's service would inspire others to serve.
In 1942, manpower shortages due to America's war on two fronts led to the need for the Marines to utilize women in a number of positions to free up men to fight. They were the last service to do so as the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard had already incorporated women.
In February 1943, the Marines authorized the Women's Reserve with a call for 1,000 female officers and 18,000 enlisted. Directing the Women's Reserve was Colonel Ruth Cheney Streeter. During the war, women Marines served in the Continental United States and Hawaii, in non-combat roles, serving as secretaries, parachute riggers, mechanics, welders, radio operators, etc. By war's end the WR had nearly reached their goal with just over 800 female officers and more than 17,500 female enlisted.
Training for the Women's Reserve was no picnic. The women started the indoctrination process at Wilmington, North Carolina and eventually moved on to Camp LeJeune. Though they were in training, they were still expected to be "ladies". They were treated as schoolgirls and enlisted women were not assigned to a post unless there was a woman officer nearby. Camp LeJeune received some five hundred Women's Reserve trainees every two weeks. In the beginning only thirty-four types of jobs were open to women but by the end of the war, Women Reserves served in over 225 different specialties and comprised nearly two-thirds of the personnel at Marine Corps units.
In 1948, women were finally integrated permanently into the regular Marines with the Women's Armed Services Integration Act. Colonel Katherine Towle was the first Director of the Women Marines. She had been of the first officers in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve, called to active duty in 1943. She was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and served as Directorof the Women Marines for two years.
In 1949, the USMC would make history again with the enlistment of the first black women Marines but progress had a long way to go. When they were off base, black female Marines were still not welcome in white establishments (military or civilian) even when they were with other Marines.
Women Marines continued to prove their worth. In 1960, Master Gunnery Sergeant Geraldine Moran became the first woman Marine promoted to E-9 and following year the Marines saw the promotion of the first woman to Sergeant Major, Bertha Peters Billeb. The Women's Reserves were activated for both the Korean and Vietnam wars serving both stateside and overseas. In 1967, Master Sergeant Barbara Jean Dulinksy became the first woman Marine to serve in a combat zone in Vietnam. The Marines limited the number of women who served in Vietnam, until 1966, only 60 female Marines were allowed to serve overseas and most of them were in Hawaii. As to opportunities during this time, women officers were able to enter career training programs while enlisted women were encouraged into technical training. By the mid-1970s, all fields were open to women with the exception of infantry, artillery and aviation.
The Marines continued its progress in equality when, in 1978, Colonel Margaret Brewer was promoted to Brigadier General, the first female general in Marine Corps history. Brewer, who had been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1952, had steadily moved her way up through the ranks. As a Captain she had served as Commanding Officer of the Women Marine divisions at Norfolk and Camp LeJeune.
In 1993, 2nd Lt Sarah Deal became the first female Marine aviator accepted into Naval aviation training. Deal had begun her career as an air traffic controller but in 1993 when the US loosened its rules on women flying in combat aircraft, Deal jumped at the opportunity. She earned aviator’s wings in 1995.
In 1996, Lt. General Carol Mutter became the first female three-star officer in the United States Armed Forces. One year later, the first group of women Marines would complete the gender integrated Marine Combat Training Course at Camp Geiger. One year later, Gilda A. Jackson, Special Projects Officer of the Second Marine Aircraft Wing, became the first African American female Colonel in the Marines and first woman to command the Naval Aviation Depot at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
A few years later, 1st Lieutenant Vernice Armour became the first black female combat in any of the five branches of service and a year later, she would be the first African American female combat pilot to fly combat missions in Iraq.
History would be made again in 2006 after Angela Salinas, a Marine since 1974, was the first hispanic woman Marine promoted to Brigadier General. That same year, Colonel Adele Hodges became the first woman to command Camp LeJeune, which included over 47,000 Marines and sailors. The following year, Sergeant Major Barbara Titus assumed command of the Marine Corps Installations West in 2007, overseeing the quality of life of more than 65,000 personnel and seven different installations.
Major Jennifer Grieves holds the honor of being the first female helicopter in the USMC to pilot the HMX-helicopter "Marine One" which transports the President of the United States and Marine One saw its first all-female crew during Major Grieves's final flight in 2009. Also that year, the first all-female Marine Team conducted its first mission in Afghanistan.
In 2011, Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds was assigned to Command the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot at Parris Island, which trains some 20,000 Marines each year. She would be the first woman in Marine history to do so. In the year prior to that she became the first female Marine to command in a combat area when she deployed to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan where she oversaw five Marine batallions and commanded a base of more than 10,000 Marines.
In 2012, Master Gunnery Sergeant Avril King, with nearly thirty years in the Marines, was the first female enlisted person to be chosen for the Congressional Fellowship Program. She worked in Congressman Joe Wilson's office and helped shape legislation and gave advice and input on defense matters in Congress.
Perhaps the boldest and most significant move for women's equality in the Marines was in 2016 when the Marine Corps announced the first assignment of women for infantry positions, thus opening up a number of never-before-had opportunities for training, leadership and advancement to women.
Women Marines have made great strides. Early on, when given the opportunity to serve their country, they not only met the challenge, they exceeded it. That tradition continues today. While women currently constitute just over seven percent of the Corps, their numbers are growing and they are recognized as an important mart of the Marine Corps mission.
On this 241st birthday of the Marines, we honor the struggle for equality endured by the women who have served and continue to do so and we thank them for their bold and courageous service. They make our country and our world a safer place and they inspire all women to never give up, to push forward and do things we may never have thought ourselves capable of doing.