The story of women in the Marine Corps dates back to 1918 with the enlistment of the first female Marine. Opha May Johnson’s service was the first chapter. Over 100 years later, the story builds as women continue to break barriers and accomplish tasks once deemed impossible.
The Marine Corps’s celebration of Women’s History Month honors the personal sacrifices and accomplishments of female Marines in the past, those who fought against limitations, and today’s female Marines who are writing a new chapter in history.
Sixty-seven years after Opha May Johnson first took the oath of enlistment, Brig. Gen. Shea enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1985 and was one of the first women in her squadron. In 1985, the opportunities for women were still very limited. As a ground support equipment mechanic, Shea filled a non-traditional billet for women and served at a time when the female presence in the Marine Corps was scarce. After 2 ½ years enlisted, Shea applied for the U.S. Naval Academy and later began her career as a commissioned officer.
“There weren’t a lot of female role models I could point to and say, that’s a possible future for me,” said Shea. “I think I’ve been so fortunate to have leaders who saw a future for me that I couldn’t even imagine. Because of that, I feel that’s part of my job as a leader to help my Marines see their possible futures and not be challenged by their self-perceived limitations.”
In 1994, it was declared service members were eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they were qualified, except that women were to be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission was to engage in direct combat on the ground. All jobs, including those in combat specialties, were opened to women in 2016. Not surprisingly, the Marine Corps is still seeing female “firsts” and adjusting to an increased presence of women. Women are embracing the mental and physical challenges, improving team dynamics and fighting bravely alongside their male counterparts.
Sgt. Katya Rubisoff, Marine Corps Recruiting Station Command, Reseda, Calif., used the small amount of women in the Marine Corps as her motivation. “I take pride in the fact that such a small percentage of women are in the Marine Corps,” said Rubisoff. “I know it’s not easy and I know not everyone is cut out for it, but that makes it even better when you’re not only meeting standards, but exceeding them.”
Rubisoff joined the Marine Corps immediately following high school despite her teachers, principals and peers telling her she wouldn’t make it. Coming from a rough family background, Rubisoff immediately found a new family and support system within the Marine Corps.
Despite family responsibilities and military service previously being viewed as incompatible, Rubisoff said the Marine Corps was the best support system she could’ve imagined while having her son. She decided to give back to the Marine Corps and volunteered for recruiting duty.
“The Marine Corps absolutely changed my life,” said Rubisoff. “If I can change someone’s life like my recruiter changed mine, then I think that’s the greatest thing in the world.”
As women continue to add their histories to the Marine Corps story, leaders like Shea and Rubisoff who epitomize the core values of the Marine Corps are essential to motivating and inspiring Marines going forward. The integration of women in the Marine Corps has been a long process, but it takes the drive of the individual Marine to make a difference and continue to write new chapters.
“My hope for Women’s History Month is to celebrate those who have embodied what it means to be a Marine,” said Shea. “I hope female Marines are motivated and inspired because they’re able to see someone they can more closely relate to or see themselves becoming. When we celebrate, it reminds people why we’re here.”