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Opha Mae Johnson: first woman to enlist in the USMC

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.

Prior 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.

First black woman aviator inspired by WWI fliers

“NEGRESS AN AIR PILOT,” blared the headline of the special dispatch to the Washington Post. It was Bessie Coleman’s first appearance on the national stage, and already she was being defined by her race first, her gender second, and her accomplishments last.

In the brief news item, Coleman struck a characteristically confident note. “I like flying,” said the 20-year-old, “and I’m going into the business.”

But in order to become the first African American and Native American pilot in the world, Coleman had to leave the United States.

She returned in the summer of 1922 with an international pilot’s license and ambitious plans, and found herself suddenly in the spotlight. Everyone wanted a piece of Bessie Coleman — but her story, inspirational and thrilling at first, would end in tragedy.

Born nearly a decade before the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, Coleman was the 12th of 13 children, raised by a single, share cropping mother in Waxahachie, Texas. She walked miles to a segregated school, did domestic work with her mother, and picked cotton with her siblings.

Coleman hated picking cotton and longed to leave the poverty of Waxahachie. In 1915, she got her wish when her mother let her move in with her brothers in Chicago to attend beauty school.

Spirited and smart, Coleman loved her new city. At the time, Chicago was a locus of Great Migration culture, and home to African American institutions like The Defender, a forward-thinking weekly newspaper aimed at black readers. Coleman worked in barbershops, where she listened to men gossip and soaked up news of the day, becoming increasingly intrigued by the idea of flight. Some of Coleman’s clients were veterans of World War I, the first war to use air planes. She listened eagerly to their stories and started dreaming of her place in the cockpit.

The Women of World War I in Photographs

The role of women in World War II has been immortalized through iconic images like Rosie the Riveter proclaiming “Yes We Can!” and WASPs earning their wings. Stories of women flooding the workforce in the absence of men dominate history books and films. But they were not the first, nor the last, to challenge their traditional roles in answering the call of Uncle Sam.

Suffragettes enrolling their willingness to aid their country when hostilities broke out between Germany and U.S. 165-WW-600-A1

In honour of Women’s History Month, we continue taking a look at the role of women in World War I and their impact on the Women’s Rights Movement of the early 20th century.

At the outset of World War I in 1914 women were not allowed to serve in the military. They were not even allowed to vote nationwide. Prior to the U.S. entering the war, most women were relegated to domestic life as wives or servants. Some worked in textile manufacturing, retail, government, and education. Many wanted more and saw the war as an opportunity for women to prove their worth.

The suffragist movement was in full swing as tensions with Germany escalated following the sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram in 1917. The United States entered the war in 1917, immediately drafting nearly 3 million men into military service and drawing unprecedented numbers of women into the workforce.

Women on the Home Front

As men were drafted into service in record numbers, women were called upon to fill their roles in factories. While their work was especially important in munitions factories, women played a vital role in industrial output building air planes, cars, and ships.

Manufacturing grenades.

Civilian Organisations

Women played a vital role in civilian organisations, from the American Red Cross to the Council of National Defence. They also became active in local organisations.

Women’s Land Army

Military Organisations

Although women were not allowed to serve in combat, they contributed significantly to the medical effort. They also participated in telegraphy and stenography, camouflage painting, yeomanry, and munitions testing.

Women’s Machine Gun Squad Police Reserves, New York City.


World War I had a profound impact on women’s suffrage. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) actively participated in the civilian and military organisations. The National Women’s Party (NWP) orchestrated the first ever White House pickets to demonstrate the disconnect between fighting a war to preserve democracy and denying that right to democracy to American women. By 1918 President Wilson contended, “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought…if it had not been for the services of the women, services rendered in every sphere, not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.”

By 1920 the war was over and the 19th Amendment was passed, giving American women the right to vote. Many women returned to the home, struggling to make sense of their new-found role amidst a growing gender gap due to high casualties and a rising unemployment rate due to the return of troops and the closure of wartime factories. However, many women remained employed, demanding equal pay for equal work and paving the way for their daughters and grand-daughters in World War II and beyond.

NARA is currently completing a large-scale project to digitize photographs and films from World War I, including these photographs from 165-WW, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. Check back soon for updates on this project.

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