By: Scott RossPublished: August 13, 2022

Opha May Johnson

The 19th Amendment to the United States’ Constitution, which finally granted women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920. But two years before that long overdue event, the country found itself in such deep shit that it put out the call to the disenfranchised and asked them to join the United States Marine Corp. And when that call went out, the first in line was one Opha May Johnson.

Johnson (nee Jacob) was born May 4, 1878, in Kokomo, Indiana, before moving to Washington, DC, where she was salutatorian of the Class of 1895 at the Wood's Commercial College, earning a degree in shorthand and typewriting. Three years later, she married Victor Hugo Johnson, then the musical director of the Lafayette Square Opera House. She later took a job at the Interstate Commerce Commission, where she worked for more than a decade.

By the summer of 1918, the United States was fully embroiled in The Great War and desperately in need of more men (yes, men) to take up arms against the Germans, so they let it be known that they needed women to relieve male Marines assigned to desk duty so that they might be shipped overseas.

On August 13, Johnson enlisted, and was sworn in, a landmark moment that was hailed with the headline GIRL JOINS DEVIL DOGS. Private Johnson was immediately put to work at USMC headquarters, where she was to “look after the interests of the other young women to be enrolled in the Marine Corps Reserves,” according to The Evening Star.

Because Johnson was breaking new ground, the USMC wasn’t quite ready for her, so her enlistment form is a bit of a mess, with all the male pronouns crossed out and replaced by the appropriate ones.

By September, Johnson was promoted to Sergeant and the war was won by November (correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it also doesn’t disprove causation), so Johnson and the rest of the female Devil Dogs began to be de-enlisted. By February 1919, Johnson was back at the Civil Service. Later that summer, she was a charter member of the first American Legion post to accept women.

Johnson died on August 11, 1955, at the age 77, with her burial coming two days later on the fifty-seventh anniversary of her historic enlistment. Her grave in the Rock Creek Cemetery in DC was unmarked for more than a half-century, until the Women’s Marine Association found her final resting place. The WMA raised the funds for a marker commemorating her historic achievement that was erected on August 29, 2018.


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