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The Evolving Role of Women in the Corps

In 1918, the first woman, Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Since that time, female Marines have consistently proven what they are capable of and continue to expand their role within the Corps.

In 1918, the first woman, Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Since that time, female Marines have consistently proven what they are capable of and continue to expand their role within the Corps.

Although the Marine Corps has proudly defended the United States since its founding in 1775, it wasn’t until 1918 that women first donned the uniform. Since that time, the role of female Marines has evolved over the years as women continue to show what they are capable of accomplishing for the Corps.

In 1918, roughly 305 women enlisted in the Marine Corps, beginning with Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson. At the time, female Marines could not exceed the rank of sergeant and filled vacancies left by male Marines fighting in World War I.

Female Marines originally received training in existing naval schools for women. It wasn't until 1949 that the Marine Corps first sent women recruits to Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. (U.S. Marine Corps historical photo)

Female Marines originally received training in existing naval schools for women. It wasn’t until 1949 that the Marine Corps first sent women recruits to Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. (U.S. Marine Corps historical photo)

In 1943, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established and Col. Ruth Streeter became its first director. Instead of attending boot camp, women Marines received their training in existing naval schools for women. In May of 1943, a total of 75 women Marines had graduated officer training and 722 had made it through recruit training. The Marine Corps established Women Reserve School on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejune, N.C., where future female recruits and candidates would receive training, as well as follow-on job training. By this time the Women’s Reserve numbers had grown to 18,000 enlisted women and 821 officers. Director Streeter made it her mission to integrate women Marines into the Corps.

During World War II, women Marines were cleared to serve in capacities beyond just clerical duties. They held positions in more than two hundred various occupations in every major Marine Corps post. At the close of World War II, the majority of the Women Reserve returned home, save roughly 100 women officers and enlisted Marines at Headquarters Marine Corps.

In 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed women to serve as permanent members of the armed forces, in addition to a reserve force. In June of that year, the Women’s Reserve was deactivated and replaced by the Women Marines. It was in this year that the first eight enlisted women were sworn into the active component of the Corps.

(U.S. Marine Corps historical photo)

Since the first woman enlisted in the Corps in 1918, female Marines have played a significant role in accomplishing the Marine Corps mission. When the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed in 1948, women were given a permanent seat within the Marine Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps historical photo)

The following year, women recruits headed to Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., for the first time as part of 3rd Recruit Battalion to endure a six-week training course. That same year, the first black female Marines enlisted in the Corps.

Although women contributed significantly to the Marine Corps mission during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, there were still significant roles women were not permitted to fill. In 1973, a pilot program was established to train women for duty with specific stateside portions of the Fleet Marine Forces, women were permitted to be assigned to all occupational-specialties except combat arms and women were allowed to command units other than just women units.

In 1975, all occupational-specialties opened to women except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot and aircrew. The latter two were opened up in later years to allow female Marines in the airwing as aircrew and pilots.

In more recent Marine Corps history, female Marines were allowed on ship in the early 1990’s and went through Marine Combat Training after boot camp with their male counterparts beginning in 1997. This year, the first female officer and enlisted Marines became part of a study group to endure infantry training as part of ongoing research about further opening combat-related jobs for women.

“I am taken back every day by what our Marines provide – What they give. They sacrifice body, mind, life and family to serve. They give themselves completely with no questions. They miss birthdays, funerals, first days of school, first bike rides – To serve our Country! That’s Selfless! This isn’t a male or female thing – This is a Marine thing,” Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps, Micheal P. Barrett.

We’re highlighting six E-9s in the Marine Corps who together have more than 150 years of service. These women have spent their lives shattering the stereotypes and restrictions put on their gender and now hold prominent positions at major commands around the Corps. But aside from being motivated Marines, these women are people, too. They’re mothers, wives, daughters and grandmothers. And these are their stories.

Sgt. Maj. Robin Fortner

When all of her friends were applying for college, a kid from the streets of New York City walked into a Marine Corps recruiter’s office for a different life. Twenty-four years later, she is the sergeant major of 2nd Law Enforcement Battalion at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness

Early on in her career, Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness was told she couldn’t carry the symbols of her unit and country because she was female. Maness, a young but mature lance corporal at the time, stood fast in her convictions and appealed. Today she is the senior enlisted leader at the “Oldest Post of the Corps,” and having developed a strict attention to all that is prescribed by custom, she is now responsible for safeguarding the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps.

Early on in her career, Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness was told she couldn’t carry the symbols of her unit and country because she was female. Maness, a young but mature lance corporal at the time, stood fast in her convictions and appealed.
Today she is the senior enlisted leader at the “Oldest Post of the Corps,” and having developed a strict attention to all that is prescribed by custom, she is now responsible for safeguarding the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps.

Master Gunnery Sgt. Lillian McLaughlin

In 1992, a young woman decided to follow in her father’s steps and stand on the yellow footprints to become a United States Marine. Her down-to-earth leadership style and positive outlook made her successful no matter what challenge came her way. Now she is a master gunnery sergeant and the legal services chief at the Legal Services Support Section on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

In 1992, a young woman decided to follow in her father’s steps and stand on the yellow footprints to become a United States Marine. Her down-to-earth leadership style and positive outlook made her successful no matter what challenge came her way. Now she is a master gunnery sergeant and the legal services chief at the Legal Services Support Section on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

Sgt. Maj. Stephanie Murphy

Twenty-six years ago, a single mother joined the Marine Corps so she could have money for an education. She had every intention of getting out after her first enlistment. However, she soon found her niche in an environment that rewarded hard work and challenged her to keep striving for more. Now she serves as the sergeant major of the command that shapes the Marine Corps’ future officers.

Twenty-six years ago, a single mother joined the Marine Corps so she could have money for an education. She had every intention of getting out after her first enlistment. However, she soon found her niche in an environment that rewarded hard work and challenged her to keep striving for more. Now she serves as the sergeant major of the command that shapes the Marine Corps’ future officers.

Sgt. Maj. Irene O’Neal

If the tiny, young woman from Texas had butterflies in her stomach while reporting to an all-male company in 1986, the men were none the wiser.

If the tiny, young woman from Texas had butterflies in her stomach while reporting to an all-male company in 1986, the men were none the wiser. She flourished as leader in a field dominated by men, and if she ever had doubts, the Marines she followed and led, were again not aware. Today she is a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a Marine Corps sergeant major. Sgt. Maj. Irene O’Neal is serving as the senior enlisted advisor to the Inspector General of the Marine Corps.

Sgt. Maj. Toshia Sundermier

In 1990, a young woman proved to herself and the skeptics that she wasn’t just a pretty face and that she did have what it takes to become one of “the few and the proud.” Now she is the sergeant major of H&S Battalion at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

In 1990, a young woman proved to herself and the skeptics that she wasn’t just a pretty face and that she did have what it takes to become one of “the few and the proud.” Now she is the sergeant major of H&S Battalion at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.

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  • USMC Female Retiree

    Dr. Helldigger,
    Its a Marine thing…you wouldn’t understand!

  • Christy Faymonville

    Semper Fi, ladies…..thanks for a job well-done!

  • Dr. Helldigger

    The new gay/Girl Army is a mistake that will haunt us, make us weaker and less likely to accomplish the mission when we must annihilate the enemy. Who ever made this new normal was out to ruin the country. Don’t be fooled. Women are not soldiers no matter how hard they try.

    Believing they are soldiers is war against women and weakens the country.
    We love women, let them be women. Stop putting our ladies in harm’s way and turning them into wanna be killers who are more likely to lose a battle or be captured, raped and give up vital information.

    Why do you people hate women so much that you have done this terrible thing to them?