Free a man to fight! This was the call for women to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve during two world wars. Although 305 women served in the Marine Corps Reserve during World War I, all were separated from service by June 30, 1919, after the war ended. It wasn’t until Feb. 13, 1943, that Gen. Thomas Holcomb, the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, announced the formation of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.
In 1917, countless young men volunteered for the armed forces, and for the first time in U.S. history, the labor potential of women became important. Pioneers like Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson, the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve Aug. 13, 1918, paved the way for women in the Marine Corps today. During WWI, 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 still didn’t have the right to vote, they were willing and able to serve their country.
Twenty-five years later, the country was embroiled in another world war and women again answered the call to serve. More than 22,000 officer and enlisted women joined the Corps during World War II as part of the Women’s Reserve. 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, 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, credited these women with “putting the 6th Marine Division in the field.”
Following Japan’s surrender, demobilization of the Women’s Reserve proceeded rapidly, with only 1,000 remaining in the reserve by July 1946. Then 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.
For the first time in history, the Women’s Reserve was mobilized in August 1950 for the Korean War, reaching peak strength of 2,787 active-duty women Marines. Again, they stepped into stateside jobs and freed male Marines for combat duty. By the height of the Vietnam War, about 2,700 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.