On August 13 in 1918, the United States Marine Corps opened its doors,allowing for the enlistment of women, so that they may join in the efforts of World War I. On that day, over 300 women enlisted. First in line was Opha May Johnson.
On May 4 of 1878, Opha May was born in Kokomo, Indiana. Her family and she later moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1895, where she went to school and graduated from the Shorthand & Typewriting department of Wood’s Commercial College. She lived and worked in civil service in Washington D.C. as World War I began.
At this point in time, women were only able to serve our country through means of moral and economic support. The majority of this included sending clothing and supplies to the troops, rationing foods, and buying and selling war bonds, but many also found other ways to help through various organizations around the country. Women were not allowed to be close to the frontlines of war, but often times would act as nurses, treating those wounded at evacuation hospitals, far behind the lines. There was also a new level of political influence that this war opened up for women that had not been there previously. In fact, many jobs opened their doors for women that previously hadn’t.
As the summer of 1918 approached, the war dynamic shifted. The Allied Powers found themselves on the offensive, though this unfortunately resulted in a high number of casualties. The final push of the war called for more trained and battle-ready troops. This lead to the need for women to serve in non-traditional (non-combat) roles. On August 8 of 1918, approval was given to women, allowing them to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve in order to serve in clerical positions. This in turn would free up the Marines currently in those positions, allowing for their deployment to the front lines.
On August 13, 1918 hundreds of women lined up to join. At 40 years old, Opha May was the first. Her past education coupled with her experience in civil service set her up to become a great candidate for the positions the Marine Corps Reserve was looking for. Opha May found herself assigned clerical duty in the Department of the Quartermaster. She quickly proved herself capable and on September 11 of that same year she was appointed to Sergeant. By the early part of 1919, Opha May was the only female reservist still working in the Quartermaster Department who held a rank.
As the War ended, the female reservists began to be discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve. Many of these women, including Sgt. Opha May Johnson, decided to continue working in the War Department, but in the role of civil servants.
At a time when women were not particularly valued or readily greeted in the military, many stepped up when their country needed them. Opha May Johnson being the first of these strong and determined women. Despite the role women were expected to play in society, Opha May and hundreds of other women rose to the occasion of something much greater. Throughout history, it is moments and people like this which have made our country so special, and has fueled our growth. Without the courage and determination of Opha May, and all those like her, we would not be where we are today, 100 years later. In the one hundred years that have passed since Opha May became the first woman to enlist in the Marines, women have persisted and now are serving in combat roles, and helping to further protect our country’s freedoms. The Purple Heart Foundation is so grateful to all of the women, and all of the men who serve this country. We are committed to honoring ALL of our heroes. Show your support for our men and women in uniform by making a one-time or monthly pledge to make sure they continue to receive the support and benefits they deserve.