The Depot

Female Marines: Celebrating 100 Years of Women in the Corps


The struggle for women in the U.S. military dates back to as long as there has been a nation. Women were only permitted to serve as cooks, medical, or clerical personnel and in many cases were not allowed to serve as uniformed service members. For female Marines, the story isn’t much different.

The first of the female Marines was Opha May Johnson who joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1918. She was the first of 305 women to fill a clerical billet at Marine Corps Headquarters which allowed male Marines to ship to France to fight in World War I. About a year later, Johnson and others were separated after the end of the war.

During World War II, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in February 1943. Before World War II ended, more than 23,000 officer and enlisted female Marines (reservists) served in the Corps. Unlike their predecessors, female Marines in World War II performed more than 200 military assignments. In addition to clerical work, female Marines also performed duties as parachute riggers, mechanics, radio operators, map makers, motor transport support, and welders.

By June 1944, female Marines (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. Following the surrender of Japan, demobilization of the Women’s Reserve proceeded rapidly, but a number of female Marines returned to service as regulars in the Marine Corps under the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

In August 1950, for the first time in history, female Marines were mobilized for the Korean War where the number of female Marines on active duty was more than 2,700. Like the female Marines who had served in two wars before them, female Marines performed stateside duty and freed up male Marines for combat duty.

Female Marines continued to serve and by the Vietnam War, there were about 2,700 female Marines on active duty serving both stateside and overseas. During the war, the Marine Corps also began opening up career-type formal training programs to female Marine officers and advanced technical training to enlisted female Marines. By 1975, the Marine Corps approved the assignment of women to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot/air crew.

In 1978, Col. Margaret A. Brewer was appointed as a brigadier general becoming the first female Marine general officer in the history of the Marine Corps.

In 1985, Col. Gail M. Reals became the first female Marine selected by a board of general officers to be advanced to brigadier general.

During the early 1990s, approximately 1,000 female Marines were deployed to Southwest Asia for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

In 1992, Brig. Gen. Carol A. Mutter assumed command of the 3d Force Service Support Group, Okinawa, and is the first of female Marines to command a Fleet Marine Force unit at the flag level. Mutter would later be the first female Marine to become a major general and the second woman in U.S. military history to earn three-stars in 1996.

In 1993, 2nd Lt. Sarah Deal is the first female Marine selected for Naval aviation training.  

In 2002, 1st Lt. Vernice Armour became the first female Marine to be an African-American combat pilot in the Marine Corps.

Today, female Marines account for around four percent of all Marine officers. Female Marines make up about five percent of the active-duty enlisted force in the Marine Corps. In 2016, the Department of Defense opened all military occupations to women.

Below are some key dates and milestones in the history of female Marines in the Marine Corps.

Captain Anne Lentz, part of the female Marines, becomes the first commissioned officer in the USMC.

In March, 722 enlisted female Marines of the Women Reserves begins training at the U.S. Naval Training School at Hunter College, NY.

A class of 71 officer candidate female Marines enters U.S. Naval Midshipmen’s School at Mt Holyoke, MA.

In April, the first class of enlisted female Marines graduated and reported to active duty. Approximately 525 women entered training every two weeks.

In May, the first class of female Marines officer candidates graduates and reports for duty.

In July, training for female Marines who are enlisted and officer candidates is transferred to Camp Lejeune, NC. Basic training for female Marines and much of their occupational training is at Lejeune throughout the war.

On January 29, the first detachment of female Marines, five officers and 160 enlisted women, arrives in Hawaii for duty.

In June, the commandant of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Policy Board recommends the retention of a small number of female Marines to serve as trained cadre for possible mobilization emergencies.

The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 authorizes 100 regular female Marines (officers), 10 female Marines (warrant officers), and 1,000 enlisted female Marines.

On Nov. 10, eight female Marines are sworn in as first regular female Marines.

The 3d Recruit Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island is reactivated for training non-veteran female Marines. Female Marines (recruits) began arriving at Parris Island and formed the first platoon of 50 regular female Marines to take a six-weeks training course.

The first African-American woman, Annie E. Graham of Detroit, Michigan, enlisted in the female Marines. On the following day, Ann E. Lamb joined at New York City. The two women reported to Parris Island on September 10, 1949. Both subsequently reported for duty at Headquarters Marine Corps and became the first African American female Marines.

Annie L. Grimes, who would later become a chief warrant officer, enlisted into the female Marines and went to boot camp in February. Female Marines have always trained and worked in a fully integrated environment. They were never segregated due to race.

Col. Katherine A. Towle, Director of Women Marines, became the first woman line officer to retire from U.S. military service on reaching the mandatory retirement age of 55.

Master Gunnery Sergeant Geraldine M. Moran becomes the first of female Marines to become an E-9.

The first of female Marines is promoted to sergeant major (E-9). Sgt. Maj. Bertha Peters Billeb would also become the first woman to retire from the USMC with more than 30 years of service.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter becomes the first female three-star officer in the U.S. Armed Forces as she assumed the position of Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower and Reserve Affairs at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.

The first three female Marines graduate from the Marine Corps’ enlisted infantry training course. PFC Christina Fuentes Montenegro, PFC Julia Carroll and PFC Katie Gorz.

Secretary of Defense Carter Ash removes all restrictions, opens all military occupations to women.

The first female Marines graduate from the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course.

Marine PFC Maria Daume is the first female Marine to join the infantry through the traditional entry-level training process.

The Marine Corps’ first female armor officer, 2nd Lt. Lillian R. Polatchek, graduated from Army’s Basic Armor Officer Leaders Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. She became the first woman to lead a Marine tank platoon.

Lt. Marina A. Hierl became the first and only woman to lead an infantry platoon.

Lt. Col. Michelle Macander took over command of the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion at Camp Pendleton making her the first female Marine to command a ground combat arms unit.

There are of course dozens and dozens of firsts that females have accomplished in the Marine Corps but unfortunately, we can’t cover them all.

Today, female Marines are blazing trails throughout the Marine Corps. With military occupations wide open to them, they are showing that women have always been able to perform whatever is expected of Marines because they are in fact, Marines, and have earned the title.