First female Marine, Opha May Johnson.
The first female US Marine enlistee, Opha May Johnson, was actually the first of 305 women who signed up that day. She just happened to be at the head of the line so her name has endured and is still revered.
Though her name (sometimes spelled “Opha Mae” though the correct spelling of her middle name is “May” according to a Marine Corps historian) might not be widely recognized, she has not been forgotten. In fact, there is a Facebook page bearing her name – with 96 friends – and even a You Tube video featuring a young donkey mascot some soldiers rescued and endearingly named Opha May Johnson.
When Opha May Johnson enlisted in the Marine Corps, the United States was in the middle of the First World War. With as many men enlistees as possible needing to be trained for combat on Europe’s Western Front, many of whom were trained right here in Quantico, the Marine Corps realized that it still needed able bodies capable of performing the administrative tasks men had performed up until then.
The solution came in the form of the creation of the Marine Corps’ Women’s Reserve. On Aug. 2, 1918, Commandant of the Marine Corps Maj. Gen. George Barnett sent a request to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels for women to be enrolled in the Marine Corps to replace men in clerical duties. The key reasoning being there were any number of clerical and administrative duties that women could perform as well as men, and that by doing so, those men could be freed to perform field service instead. Secretary Daniels approved Maj. Gen. Barnett’s request six days later on Aug 8. Word was spread quickly via word of mouth and the media channels of the era, and five days later enlistments of women began.
And so, by being the first in line on Aug. 13, 1918, at a Washington D.C. recruiting station, Opha May Johnson, originally from Kokomo, Indiana, became the first woman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. At the time of her enlistment, she had been working as a civil service employee at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington D.C. Now Pvt. Johnson, she would continue to serve the Marine Corps in Washington D.C. in the office of the Quartermaster General of the Marine Corps.
By the time of her exit from active service in 1919, Opha May Johnson had risen to the rank of sergeant and was working for the quartermaster still. She was the highest ranking woman in the Marine Corps during the war. And like the other 304 women who were enlisted into the Marine Corps during World War I, she never left her clerical duties, according to the solution.
It’s amazing how she is mentioned in boot camp to this day! She is a part of Marine Corps History.
Today women have a larger role in the Corps, as shown by the statistics.
According to the Marine Corps Concepts and Programs website, today there are more than 1,300 females serving as officers and more than 12,000 serving as enlisted Marines.
As females’ roles continue to evolve and female Marines participate equally with male Marines on many levels, Marines should know that Opha May Johnson had the same characteristics as those who wear the uniform today.