AUGUST 14, 2018, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA – On August 13, 1918, Pvt. Opha May Johnson became the first in a line of just over 300 women to join the United States Marine Corps. Today, exactly 100 years later, women are continuing that legacy, helping the Marine Corps progress in leaps and bounds. Since 1918, the Marine Corps has discovered that when dealing with a Marine’s sense of pride and work ethic, men and women have no differences.
Pvt. Opha May Johnson, a native of Kokomo, Indiana, was 39 years old when she signed up. She moved to Washington D.C. with her family when she was 6 years old. At age 20, she married Victor Hugo Johnson, a musical conductor. She was a graduate of the shorthand and typing department of Wood’s Commercial College. Afterwards she began working in civil service with the Interstate Commerce Commission.
After seeing her country at war for a year, Johnson decided to take the initiative and was first in line to enlist into the Marine Corps Reserves the day they opened up to women. She underwent the basic training that offered at the time, and due to her prior skills gained from college and work experience she was assigned to be a clerk for Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
Just as Johnson had her own history and drive to break barriers by joining the Marine Corps, women who serve today come with their own unique stories and reasons for joining the world’s most elite fighting force. Prior to joining the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maria Hernandez, an engineer equipment electrical systems technician with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command 19.1, worked in the engineering field within the oil and gas industry. Like most Marines, she wanted more out of life than what her career at the time could offer.
“I wanted an adventure. I wanted to do something drastically different,” said Hernandez. “I remember thinking, I want to have a story, too. I wanted to find a platform that would take me to travel around the world, meet other people and be able to tell stories.”
The Marine Corps has been integrating women as a permanent part of its force since the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed on June 12, 1948. Since then, women in the Marine Corps have been shattering expectations and breaking the stereotypes they have faced for so many years.
“The importance of integrating females is just the same as integrating anyone from any walk of life,” said Sgt. Rachel Busch, a meteorology and oceanography analyst forecaster with the SPMAGTF-CR-CC 19.1.
Busch continued to describe how people from various lifestyles and cultures coming together allow for different styles of leadership and ideas. Having that diversity allows the Marine Corps to approach obstacles in a variety of ways.
Today in the Marine Corps, women have the opportunity to work in many military occupation specialties. Back in 1918, the first female Marines were not afforded this opportunity. Originally, women were only permitted to do clerical work and operate within the continental U.S. Women took on the administrative jobs to allow male Marines to be sent to fight overseas. By the end of World War II, 85 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps were women.
“I think we have completely progressed into a positive direction,” said 1st Sgt. Diana Bacolod, SPMAGTF-CR-CC 19.1. company first sergeant. “Now we are everywhere. We have the Lioness Program; we have the first two infantry officers that have graduated; we have first sergeants in combat elements. We are no longer just clerical workers.”
Similar to the early restrictions on occupational choices, women were also barred from becoming commissioned officers or earning leadership roles. Change began in 1943 when Capt. Anne Lentz, a woman who tailored female Marine clothing prior to joining, became the first commissioned female officer in the Marine Corps. Since then, hundreds of women have taken on higher roles and achieved the most senior enlisted ranks such as Master Gunnery Sgt. Geraldine M. Moran, the first female Marine to be promoted to the rank in 1960, and Brig. Gen. Margaret A. Brewer, the first female general in 1978.
The Marine Corps today comprises of approximately 8 percent of women – all bearing the title Marine. The number continues to grow as women become more prevalent working in all occupational specialties and solidify the importance of their role within the Marine Corps.
“The change has to occur,” said Bacolod. “You have to put us in those positions, give us the proper guidance, and just treat us like Marines.”
The integration of women into the Marine Corps’ forces has progressed tremendously over the last 100 years since Pvt. Opha May Johnson signed her name on a line to become part of the Marine Corps. Women have gone from clerical occupations to combat roles, from lower enlisted Marines to general officers. The progression has not slowed down and shows no sign of receding. Women throughout history have proven that they are a key part of the U.S. Marine Corps and are here to stay.
“The opportunities for many of us are being opened,” said Bacolod, “just because some women chose to challenge the standards.”
Story by Sgt. Justin Huffty
15th Marine Expeditionary Unit