When Gail M. Reals joined the Marines in 1954, she faced a " macho organization" and a "terrible" inferiority complex.
Today, Brig. Gen. Reals sits at the top of the pyramid, the winner of a difficult survival contest. She is the Marine Corps' only female general.
"There is no Yellow Brick Road, no magical path," Reals said Wednesday at a convention of the Women Marines Assn. in Buena Park, where she will be the featured speaker Friday.
When Reals signed up 32 years ago, the Marines included fewer than 2,000 women. As of April, 1986, women numbered 9,717 out of almost 200,000, including 650 officers.
In May, 1985, she became the first woman in Marine history to be selected from a field of both men and women to become brigadier general. She is the second to hold the rank; Margaret Brewer was appointed under an older promotional system by President Carter in 1978. Brewer retired in 1980.
Born in Fayetteville, N.Y., she has spent much of her 31-year military career "coming up the hard way." At 50, she directs the manpower plans and policy division at Corps headquarters in Washington.
To many of the 500 women and men attending the convention, Reals is much more than a general. Her accomplishment transcends the office, and she finds herself constantly in the spotlight, they say. People want to shake her hand. They ask for her autograph and to have their picture taken with her.
John K. Palmer of Stockton, a member of the association's all-male auxiliary, approached her with hand extended, saying: "I've always wanted to shake the hand of a woman general. Thank you."
Reals spoke about what it takes to become No. 1.
"I'm not married. Basically in my early days you either became an officer or got married--one of the two, but not both. Back then, you couldn't have dependent children under 18 years.
"Now about 35% to 40% of our women in the Marine Corps are married and have families."
New policies, she said, have created more opportunities for younger women to advance faster. Still, she said, the corps is a " macho organization. But to me that has always been kind of an incentive."
In fact, she attributes her success to a "highly developed sense of inferiority."
"People have always been telling me that I could really succeed if I would just try. But I've never had that confidence. . . . So I've had to work harder."