Remembering the Ladies

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Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency.  And by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.  Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Abigail Adamsin a letter to her husband John, 31 March 1776.

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Opha May Johnson (1878-1955)

Opha May Jacob was born on 4 May 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana.  She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood’s Commercial College in Washington, D. C. at the age of 17.  In 1898, she married a gentleman named Victor H. Johnson. Victor was the musical director at the Lafayette Square Opera House and Opha worked as a civil servant for the Interstate Commerce Commission.

And then, World War I came along.  Women have always been involved during times of war.  For centuries, women followed armies—many of whom were the wives of soldiers who provided indispensable services to their men, such as cooking, laundry, and nursing wounds.  World War I involved women, too … albeit in a different way than at any previous time. Thousands of women in the United States formed or joined organizations that worked to bring relief to the war-torn countries in Europe even before America’s official entry into the war in April 1917.  American women weren’t alone in this effort; thousands of women in the United Kingdom followed a similar path —the difference being that Great Britain had been engaged in World War I from its beginning.

After the United States entered World War I, women continued to join the war time organizations and expand the war effort.  They were highly organized groups, much like the military, and this helped women to gain respect from their fellow citizens and have their patriotic endeavors recognized and respected.  The key difference between the efforts of women during World War I and previous wars was the class of women involved.  Typically, women who followed the armies in earlier times were working-class women, but during World War I, women from all classes of society served in many different capacities.  So-called upper-class women were primary founders of war time organizations because they could afford to devote so much of their time (and money) to these efforts. Middle and lower-class ladies were more likely to serve as nurses, telephone operators, and office clerks. And for the first time in American history, women from every part of the social spectrum stepped up to serve in the military.

The first women to enlist in the United States Marine Corps on 13 August 1918 was Opha May Johnson.  She became the first woman Marine because when the recruiting doors were opened to enlist women for the first time, Opha Johnson was standing first in line —the first among 300 women accepted for enlistment in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Given her background as a civil servant, Private Johnson’s first duty was clerical at Headquarters Marine Corps. Within one month, Johnson was promoted to sergeant and therefore became the Marine Corps’ first female sergeant and the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps.

Streeter RC 001At the end of World War I, women were discharged from the services as part of general demobilization.  Opha May Johnson remained at Headquarters Marine Corps as a civil service clerk until her retirement from in 1943.  She was still working at Headquarters Marine Corps in 1943 when the Marine Corps reinstituted the Women’s Reserve for World War II service.  At the time of her enlistment in 1918, Opha May Johnson was 40 years old.  In 1943, the Marine Corps appointed its first Director of the Women Reserve, a lady named Ruth Cheney Streeter (shown right).  At the time of Streeter’s appointment as a reserve major, she was 48-years old.  In those days, the age of the applicant would not have affected enlistment or appointment eligibility because, with few exceptions, women did not perform their duties at sea or foreign shore.

As Abigail Adams admonished her now-famous husband, we should always remember the ladies and give them due credit for their patriotism and service to the United States of America. Women have been an integral part of the United States Marine Corps since 1948 when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act gave them permanent status in the regular and reserve forces. During World War II, twenty-thousand women served as Marines in more than 225 occupational specialties.  Eighty-five percent of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps in World War II were filled by women; two-thirds of the permanent personnel assigned to Marine Corps posts and stations in the United States were women Marines.

Womens Reserve USMCThe first woman Marine to serve in a combat zone was Master Sergeant Barbara Dulinsky, who served on the MACV Staff in Saigon, Vietnam in 1967 [1].  Since then, women Marines have taken on new roles, from combat aviators [2] to rifleman.  In Afghanistan and Iraq, women Marine officers commanded combat service support units in combat zones and served on the staffs of forward deployed headquarters. By every account, these women acquitted themselves very well.  Still, the issue of women serving in the combat arms, while authorized and directed by the Department of Defense, remains a contentious issue.  Prominent women Marines have spoken out about this, with more than a few claiming that while women do perform well in the combat environment, such duties have a deleterious effect on their physical health —more so than men— and that it is therefore unnecessary to employ women in the combat arms in order to maintain a high state of readiness in combat units and organizations.

Endnotes:

[1] American women have served on the front line of combat since the Revolutionary War, primarily as nurses, medics, and ambulance drivers, and provisioners.  The US Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps was created in 1908.  Prohibitions of women serving aboard navy ships (excluding hospital ships) resulted in most Navy nurses serving in field hospitals ashore and not within a battle area; Army nurses similarly served in field medical hospitals on foreign shore.

[2] See also: Wings of honor.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Remembering the Ladies”

  1. My first experience with Women Marines was on Parris Island when we were taken to the base theatre to see Sands of Iwo Jima. I remember hearing their Drill Instructors yelling at them and how odd it sounded to hear a female voice giving commands. I also realized that a number of the WM recruits had wigs on, I discovered years later that they were allowed to wear them if they didn’t want to cut their hair. Being in the grunts on Geiger in the early ‘80s, we didn’t see any WMs, unless we went on New River. Nowadays, I get to go to LeJeune and just recently to Quantico, with the Marine Corps League, the WMs I see and have contact with seem highly motivated and truly dedicated. Not that I ever doubted that before. Semper Fi.

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    1. As a military brat, I recall the WM pin stripe uniforms of the 1950s, and after joining up, remember that the women were all barracked at a single location. I never saw that barrack, but my buddies told me it was like a fortress, with better security than Fort Knox. That might have been an embellishment. One of our Marines from E/2/8 went over to the slop-chute one night and witnessed a male Marine offer one of the ladies a lewd suggestion. According to this report, she simply knocked this fellow on his ass … no loud noise, no real fuss, and no bother. I always figured there was a lesson in there, somewhere. Thanks for your comment, Mike. Semper Fi.

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    2. Sands of Iwo Jima is my all time classic favorite. When it aired on TV decades ago, I read Marine Corps enlistments would peak.

      Thank you for serving, Sir.

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  2. What a superb history lesson, Sir. Fascinating to say the least. She was the first! And now, we have female fighter pilots in the Corps. What a pioneer Opha was.

    Are you starting a short series on female Marines? I’d love to read about them. I had always wanted to write about Lena Basilone (who passed away in neighboring Lakewood, CA) but dared not infringe on your much loved Corps – especially with inaccuracies. 🙂

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  3. Fascinating piece as always…I didn’t know the Marines started having women recruits as early as you state…
    I met several who had served in Vietnam when I was in College. Supposedly not in the forward positions, they still suffered much and talked about the constant bombing and what it did to them.

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    1. Serving in forward areas takes it toll on everyone, no matter what their occupational speciality. In today’s environment, there are “forward” areas, of course, but every region carries with it the risk of hostile action. The presence of danger from unexpected sources weighs heavily on everyone’s psyche.

      Thank you for your comment, Bunks.

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