Trailblazer Opha May Johnson Becomes the First Female Marine

She was first in line, and became the first woman Marine. She was Opha May Johnson, and she enlisted 100 years ago today.

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It’s been said that history is made by those who show up. Last week,The New York Times ran a story on First Lieuntenant Marina A. Hierl; Hierl is one of only two women to pass the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course. Lieutenant Hierl made further history as she was assigned her own platoon to lead. Hierl is one of the people that shows up. Opha May Johnson led the way for women like Lieutenant Hierl and proved that you can make history by showing up first. 100 years ago today, Johnson earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.

Born Opha May Jacob in Kokomo, Indiana in 1879, the future Marine attended Wood’s Commercial College. She earned the rank of salutatorian, graduating from the shorthand and typewriting department in 1895. Three years later, she married Victor Johnson, musical director of the Lafayette Square Opera House in Washington D.C.

Portrait of Opha May Johnson
Opha May Johnson. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Richmond Time-Dispatch dated September 1, 1918, Johnson was already a civil servant, working for the Interstate Commerce Department, when the chance came up for her to apply to the United States Marine Corps Reserve. The reserve had been established in 1916, concurrent with the U.S.’s involvement in World War I. During the last two years of the war, women were allowed to join branches and reserves to cover responsibilities typically held by men that were under active deployment; 33,000 women would eventually serve support staff.

On that day in 1918, Opha May Johnson found herself at the front of the line. Private Johnson became the first of over 300 women that would enlist in the Marine Corps during the remainder of World War I. Her first assignment sent her to Marine Corps headquarters; she worked there as clerk where she managed the records of the other new, female Marines. After the conclusion of World War I in November, 1918, the various branches of the service began discharging all women from active duty. Johnson took a job as a clerk in the War Department (which would be renamed as the Department of Defense in 1949).

World War I era poster for enlistment. Features a woman dressed as a marine.
World War I enlistment drive poster. (Department of Defense)

Johnson died on August 11, 1955, at Mount Alto Veteran’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Her funeral services coincidentally fell on August 13, 37 years to the day after she enlisted. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Rock Creek Cemetery in D.C. Last year, the Women Marines Association began to fund-raise to install an official marker; the successful project will result in a site unveiling on August 29, with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert B. Neller, scheduled to speak.

Bea Arthur
Decades before Maude and The Golden Girls, Bea Arthur (then, Bea Frankel) served in the Marines, as seen in her ID photo. (Military.gov)

Since Johnson’s historic enlistment, thousands of women have served in the U.S. Armed Forces in combat and support capacities. As of 2015, around 2 million veterans in the U.S. were women. Johnson helped pave the way for later Marines like Bea Arthur; before becoming the actress best known for Maude and The Golden Girls, Arthur drove a truck as a member of the Women’s Reserve and attained the rank of staff sergeant during her stateside service in World War II. The late Margaret Brewer, the first female Marine to be made a general, was promoted to brigadier general in 1979. As of May 2018, 92 women serve in combat positions in the USMC; approximately 7% of the 186,000 active Marines are women.

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Comments

  1. Fascinating feature on Ms. Johnson, a truly pioneering woman in the American military; with the Marines arguably being the most difficult of the Armed Forces at that.

    She really did pave the way for other women to follow, as evidenced by 7% of Marines currently serving being women. I may not know them personally, but want thank every one of these women (and men) for their extremely important service to the United States.

    Always a favorite star (Maude–not the later one), I have even more reason to love and admire the late Bea Arthur for her important service as a stateside staff sergeant during World War II!

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