From Man's Corps to the Marine Corps

3 Nov 2000 | Cpl. Mike Rogers

Since women first answered the call led by Opha Mae Johnson during World War I, women have been making history as Marines.

The roles of women Marines have changed greatly over the ensuing years, taking women out of their primary niche involving clerical duties and putting them in roles such as helicopter and automotive mechanics and other formerly all-male military occupational specialties.

While the fighting in France took its toll on American fighting men, women Marines entered the Corps in a reservist status to "Free a Marine to fight" by replacing them in stateside clerical duties. 

Maj. Gen. George Barnett, Commandant of the Marine Corps, issued orders for the separation of all women from the Reserve shortly after the war in 1919.

Once again facing a dwindling force in 1942 due to the activities of WWII, females re-entered the Corps as the force of Marine Corps Reserves. 

Months later, continuous service was approved and the first enlisted class of 722 women completed training at Hunter College, N.Y.

"Our training consisted of rank recognition and drill, always drill," said retired Sgt. Maj. Mary A. Sabourin from Jacksonville, N.C.  The former Base Material sergeant major continued with, "We didn't fire weapons, but we did run through some obstacles, nothing compared to what the women go through today."

During their peak in 1944, women Marines numbered more than 19,000 in wartime service.  One-third of the female force was kept in reserve to avoid having to start from scratch as part of the postwar demobilization in 1945.

"Following the war, we were pushed back into clerical type positions and away from the jobs we had filled while the male Marines were off fighting the war," Sabourin said.  "From the 21 military occupational specialty fields available in the Corps, women were filling 16 of them until the demobilization."

Marking another step forward for the progression of females in the Corps, the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion was formed at Parris Island, S.C., to establish a permanent training facility for females other than Camp Lejeune.  Soon, all females were training at the Corps' oldest recruit depot.

Even then after earning the title "Marine," females were still segregated into all women companies to serve in the base exchanges, administrative sections and supply.  Promotions were given by the commands, until reaching the staff noncommissioned ranks, and the only females allowed to enter the Corps qualified with separate standards compared to their male counterparts.

"When we enlisted, we couldn't have children before the age of 18 and we were not allowed to marry or be married to a Marine," said Sabourin.  "The enlistment age for females was even raised to 20 because they were seeking mature, professional women to fill their ranks."

In addition to double standards for enlistment, women Marines were not allowed to attain the ranks of sergeant major or first sergeant until 1972.  The only exception was women Marines in female companies serving as first sergeant for the company and the "sergeant major" for the women Marines (These ranks were in billet only and not worn on the sleeve).

"There were nine of us master gunnery sergeants that were redesignated as sergeant majors," said Sabourin.  "We were the first, but they were still very prejudicial to many promotions.  There were some very smart women such as deans of respectable colleges that were passed on promotions."

The mid-70s' marked the approval of assignment of women to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor, and pilot/air crew.  The Office of the Director of Women Marines was then disestablished, and all female companies throughout the Corps were disbanded.

The next two decades brought even more breakthroughs to include women attaining the rank of flag officers and more than a 1,000 deploying to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Desert Storm and Shield. 

Today, more than 750 women account for approximately four and a half percent of all Marine officers. An approximate 8,000 make up five percent of the active duty enlisted force, according to information provided by Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps.

"The Marine Corps has made some significant progress with women, but they are still waking up to the fact that women can do many more things," she said. "From where we came from, we're now commanding entire units and that is still just a start for where we are going in the future."