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USC Marine History - 60th Birthday of Women in the Corps

Feb. 13 (2003) Marks 60th Anniversary of Women in the Corps
by Staff Sgt. Cindy Fisher
Marine Corps News
February 12, 2003

Marine Corps women from all stages of history displayed their uniforms.

WASHINGTON -- Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, announced the formation of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve Feb. 13, 1943. This announcement paved the way for the continuous service of women in the Marine Corps for the past 60 years.

Legend has it that the first woman actually served in the Marine Corps during the War of 1812. As the story goes, Lucy Brewer disguised herself as a man named George Baker and served as a Marine aboard the USS Constitution where she saw action during some of the bloodiest sea fights of the war. True or not, the story makes for an unusual addition to the Corps' treasure trove of colorful legends.

The first women officially served in the Marine Corps during World War I. In 1917, with countless young men volunteering for the Armed Forces, the labor potential of women became important for the first time in U.S. history. Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson became the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve Aug. 13, 1918. A total of 305 women served in the Marine Corps Reserve during World War I. Most of these women Marines, referred to as Marinettes, freed male Marines from clerical billets at Headquarters Marine Corps, enabling them to fight in France. Others filled jobs at recruiting stations across the country. Although women didn't have the right to vote, they were willing and able to serve their country. Once the war ended, all were separated from service by June 30, 1919.

It wasn't until 25 years later that women stepped onto the path that has led to 60 years of service. The country was embroiled in another world war and women again answered the call to serve which allowed male Marines to head to the frontlines.

This time, there were no nicknames, these women were known as Marines. Lt. Gen. Holcomb said, "They're real Marines. They don't have a nickname, and they don't need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere, at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of the Marines. They are Marines."

The Marine Corps Women's Reserve was established in 1943, and Col. Ruth Cheney Streeter, from Morristown, N.J., became the first director.

Streeter was also the first woman to hold the rank of major in the Marine Corps. She was appointed to that rank Jan. 29, 1943. She was promoted to lieutenant colonel Nov. 22, 1943, and to colonel Feb. 1, 1944.

Approximately 23,145 officer and enlisted women served in the Corps during World War II as part of the Women's Reserve. The first group of women officers was given direct commissions based on ability and civilian expertise. These women received no formal indoctrination or schooling, but went on active duty immediately.

In March of 1943, the first commissioned officer class of women began training at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. This class was commissioned in May of the same year. Two additional classes of women officers trained at the college before the program moved to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The first enlisted class of more than 700 women also report for training in March of 1943 at Hunter College in New York. The average age for women Marines was 20 to 25 years and 80 percent of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve's total enrollment came from only 17 states.

Women Marines in this war performed more than 200 military assignments. In addition to clerical work, they also filled positions as parachute riggers, mechanics, radio operators, motor transport support, photographers, control tower operators, cryptographers, mapmakers, and welders. By June 1944, women reservists made up 85 percent of the enlisted personnel on duty at Headquarters Marine Corps and almost two-thirds of the personnel manning all major posts and stations in the United States and Hawaii.

At the war's end, Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps, said these women could "feel responsible for putting the 6th Marine Division in the field; for without the women filling jobs throughout the Marine Corps, there would not have been sufficient men available to form that Division."

Following Japan's surrender, demobilization of the Women's Reserve proceeded rapidly. On June 7, 1946, Gen. Vandegrift approved the retention of a small number of women to serve as a trained nucleus for possible mobilization emergencies. Of the more than 20,000 who joined the Marine Corps during the war, only 1,000 remained in the reserve by July 1946.

Then, on June 12, 1948, Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which authorized the acceptance of women into the regular component of the Marine Corps and other Armed Services, placing them on par with their male counterparts.

Women Marines became part of the official active-duty establishment Nov. 10, 1948, with the enlistment of eight women, all who had served in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., was designated as the location for training women recruits. The 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, commanded by Capt. Margaret M. Henderson, was established for training women Marines.

The Women's Reserve was mobilized for the first time in August 1950 for the Korean War, reaching peak strength of 2,787 active-duty women Marines. Again, women Marines stepped into stateside jobs and freed male Marines for combat duty.

By the height of the Vietnam War, about 2,700 hundred active-duty women Marines served stateside and overseas. During this period, the Marine Corps began opening career-type formal training programs to women officers and advanced technical training to enlisted women. It was also during the 1970s that women Marines were assigned to Fleet Marine Force units for the first time. By 1975, women could be assigned to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot/air crew.

The 1990s saw additional changes and increased responsibilities for women in the Marine Corps, including flying combat aircraft. Approximately 1,000 women Marines were deployed to Southwest Asia for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Women have served in every rank from private to lieutenant general. Milestones for women in the Marine Corps include:

- Col. Margaret A. Brewer's appointment to brigadier general in 1978 made her the Corps' first woman general officer.
- Col. Gail M. Reals was the first woman to be selected by a board of general officers for advancement to the rank of brigadier genera in 1985.
- Brig. Gen. Carol A. Mutter became the first woman to assume command of a Fleet Marine Force unit at the flag level when she assumed command of the 3rd Force Service Support Group in Okinawa in 1992.
- 2nd Lt. Sarah Deal became the first woman Marine selected for Naval aviation training in 1993.
- In 1994, Brig. Gen Mutter became the first woman major general in the Corps and the senior woman on active duty in the Armed Forces.
- Lt. Gen. Mutter made history again when she became the first woman Marine to wear three stars in 1996.
- Gunnery Sgt. Patricia Crimmins became the first female Marine to earn the drum major military occupational specialty (MOS 5521) Feb. 15, 1997.
- Women Marines began attending Marine Combat Training in 1997, allowing them the same combat training opportunities as men.
- Today, women serve in 93 percent of all occupational fields and 62 percent of all billets. Women constitute 6.2 percent of the Corps end strength and are an integral part of the Marine Corps.

This, the 60th anniversary of continuous active service of women in the Marine Corps, is a significant part of the Corps' history and today's female Marines carry on that heritage.

For more information about women in the Marine Corps, visit the Web site, Women Marines-Dedicated to Corps and Country.

*Editor's note-Information for this article was researched using resources from the Marine Corps History and Museums Division, the Defense Link Web site, the Marine Corps Legacy Museum, the Marine Link Web site and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.



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