We know very well how women took over the regular social functions of men when they were sent to Europe to combat the German and Japanese forces. They became mechanics, factory workers, and anything that the men of the country used to do. Rosie the Riveter became the WWII icon that represented the women who took over everyday workforce duties in wartime. The truth was these women did not only play the role of office workers or night watchers or do motor transport duties. They also played the role of female marines during World War II.

Roosevelt Signed the Law

On July 30, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt officially penned the bill into law that would allow the creation of a woman’s Marine Reserve. The law allowed the women to be accepted into the Reserve at the enlisted level.  There were women Marines in WWI but they were a temporary war measure and not a permanent part of the Corps. The new bill also allowed them to serve as commissioned officers. Their service would be until the war’s full duration plus six more months after it ended. The main purpose of this law, as we know, was so that they could fill administrative duties and maximize the number of men that could fight on the front lines, so from 1943 to 1945, thousands of American women enlisted and took on the administrative tasks of the Marine Corps in the states and even overseas.

The first Women Marine recruits waiting to be shipped to New York for training at Hunter College receive instructions from 1stLt Helen Perrell at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)

Not to say that all women who wanted to join could just walk in and get enlisted. There were still requirements that had to be followed. For instance, they had to be American citizens, have no children under 18 years old, and not married to a Marine.

On February 13, 1943, the US Marine Commandant Major General Thomas Holcomb announced the formation of this Woman’s Reserve.


The first group of women officers was assigned based on their ability and expertise as civilians. They did not undergo basic training like male Marined at Paris Island, but attended a more basic level of training in military courtesies, wearing their uniforms, marching and saluting, at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. These Women Marines were assigned as radio operators, parachute riggers, photographers, auto mechanics, telegraph operators, laundry operators, cryptographers, post exchange managers, agriculturists, and stenographers. They were also cooks, bakers, control tower operators, gunnery instructors, and quartermasters. All in all, taking 200 different jobs. When World War II ended, 85% of the enlisted personnel in Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, were women.

Marine Corps Women’s Reserve at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina, at Parade Rest during review in November 1943. (Paul Dorsey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

After the war, Commandant of the Marine Corps General Alexander Vandergrift approved a small fraction of women to be retained on active duty. They were assigned as a trained nucleus in case of mobilization emergencies. All in all, 17,460 women have enlisted plus 820 officers. Of all these women who joined the Marine Corps during the war, only about 1,000 remained in service by July 1, 1946. These 18,000 Women Marines meant almost two additional Marine Divisions added to the fighting force.

The first director of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, Colonel Ruth Cheney Streeter, was the one who recommended the position to be placed directly under the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The legislation was passed on June 12, 1948, giving women regular military status and placing them on par with the male members of the United States armed forces.

Enduring the Criticisms

The women of the Marine Corps had to endure a degree of resentment and crude language from their male counterparts. Even so, they performed their duties with poise and dignity and responded with nothing but their accomplishments. Soon enough, their critics were turned into supporters.

Colonel Ruth Streeter, the very first director, was presented with the Legion of Merit. On the first anniversary of the Reserve, they received a message from President Roosevelt saying,

You have quickly and efficiently taken over scores of different kinds of duties that not long ago were considered strictly masculine assignments, and in doing so, you have freed a large number of well trained, battle ready men of the corps for action.

General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant of the US Marine Corps and one of those against having women serving in the Marine Corps, also reversed himself before 1943 ended,

Like most Marines, when the matter first came up I didn’t believe women could serve any useful purpose in the Marine Corps … Since then I’ve changed my mind.