March is Women’s History Month, so with that in mind we’re sharing the story of USMC Colonel Margaret Henderson (whose papers we are fortunate to house) and the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.
Faced with manpower shortages in 1918, Marine Major General Commandant George Barnett asked the Secretary of the Navy’s permission to enlist women for clerical duties. That August, Opha Mae Johnson became the first woman to enlist in the Marines, with 305 eventually joining in 1918 and taking over stateside clerical duties from battle-ready Marines needed overseas. The women were nicknamed “Marinettes.” The vast majority of USMC Headquarters personnel—almost 85% in fact—were women by the end of World War II. The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was officially established on February 13th, 1943. The MCWR was often referred to as the “Lady Marines.”
Women held over hundreds of jobs: radio operator, photographer, parachute rigger, driver, aerial gunnery instructor, cook, baker, quartermaster, control tower operator, motion picture operator, auto mechanic, telegraph operator, cryptographer, laundry operator, post exchange manager, stenographer, and agriculturist. Soon they numbered over 800 officers and 17,640 enlisted troops, although by July 1946 only around 1,000 remained in service. Regardless, in 1948 Congress made women a permanent part of the regular Marine Corps, and thousands of active and reserve soldiers served actively in the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf conflicts.
Margaret M. Henderson was one such Marine. Born in Cameron, Texas, on February 6, 1911, she received a degree in business administration from the University of Texas in 1932, and taught in Lubbock, Texas, until 1942 at which time she enlisted in the USMC. Her career began as a second lieutenant, and although her service officially ended in 1946 so that she could teach at Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University), she returned to the Corps in 1948. Ultimately, her time in the Marines spanned 21 years. She reached the pinnacle of her career when she was named the Director of the Women Marines, a post she held from 1959 to 1964.
If you want to look deeper into Henderson’s papers, our Reference Staff would be happy to help you with that.