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Opha Mae Johnson: first woman to enlist in the USMC

By Betsy Shepperd
Staff Writer, United States World War One Centennial Commission

In 1918, while the United States engaged in the battles of World War One and women on the home front fought for suffrage at home, the US Marine Corps enlisted its first woman. Opha Mae Johnson (sometimes written “May”) was the first woman to enlist in the US Marine Corps.

Opha Mae Johnson women marines military womenOpha Mae JohnsonPrior to enlistment she worked as a civil service employee at the headquarters of the Marines, from which she received assignment to be a clerk in the office of a quarter master general. Like most women enlisted in the Marine Corps, Johnson’s job consisted mainly of typing and military office work. Nevertheless, her place as the first female in the Marine Corps broke barriers for the future.

Despite being the first, Johnson was not the only woman to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War One. In fact, thousands of women arrived for recruitment days in major cities, but the Marines required intense mental and physical stamina in addition to superior office skills, which resulted in only a small portion of these enthusiastic women successfully enlisting. In these major cities, local women were recruited for office work so that male personnel could be reassigned to the front. Without these women, the Marines would have lacked the man-power necessary to their success.

While it may seem surprising to people today, the women marines during World War One earned the same pay as their male counterparts as they were valued members of the Corps.

However, this value did not last long and following World War One, the United States military began retracting women from service. On July 15th, 1919, the Marine Corp issued an order for the women reservists and those on clerical duty to be moved to inactive status by August 11th. Thus, the first female marine, Opha Mae Johnson lost her job in 1919, after which she remained active in the local American Legion and continued supporting women in service. Despite this dis-enrollment, Johnson and the other female reservists in the Marine Corps received the same veterans benefits as men, including the right to be buried at Arlington Cemetery.

The women in the Marine Corps not only critically aided the war effort, but also brought political recognition to the importance of women in the United States, which assisted the suffragette cause. Without the service of these women, the Marine Corps would have lacked personnel on the Front it needed to succeed in the First World War.

Betsy Shepperd is a Spring 2018 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.