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Ranks Close in Marines' Gender Gap : Since Corps' Merger, Sexual Barriers Have Fallen, Group Told

July 16, 1986|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

As Marine Corps Capt. Shelley Mitchell presented her slide show about basic training for today's women Marines, the only slides that brought knowing nods from the audience of mostly retired women Marines were of mess and maintenance duty.

Even though women Marines are still barred by Congress from combat, Mitchell told the women attending the Women Marines Assn. convention last week at the Buena Park Convention Center Hotel that they now undergo the same marksmanship and combat instruction as do their male colleagues.

Their basic training, she explained to her surprised audience of mostly World War II veterans now in their mid-60s, is the same physical regimen that male recruits undergo, although in separate units.

Training Recruits

"In today's world, we don't know what the front lines are," Brig. Gen. Gail Reals explained in a later interview. "Women Marines need to know how to defend themselves if they're attacked."

Mitchell, one of the few WMA members in her 20s, is responsible for training women recruits at Parris Island, S.C.--one of two major Marine boot camps for men and women recruits. At 27, Mitchell has 92 men and women under her command.

When the Redlands native was later asked how many of her staff were women and how many were men, she paused and rolled her eyes upward in a quick attempt to make the calculation. "I don't know," Mitchell finally replied. "They're all good Marines, and that's all that matters--not whether they're male or female."

Such revelations about contemporary attitudes brought frequent gasps from the 500 women and about 100 spouses who attended the five-day WMA convention, which ended last Friday. The turnout was the largest in the history of the 26-year-old national organization, said its president, Virginia Allred. There are about 3,000 veteran and active duty members in 80 chapters throughout the country.

The gradual merger of men and women into one Marine Corps, which began in 1973, is but one of the changes propelling the careers of women in the corps in new, and often uncharted, directions, said Reals, the Marines' highest-ranking officer. She was the featured speaker at Friday's closing ceremonies.

More Women Joining

The gradual dropping of sexual barriers over the last 13 years has helped increase the number of women Marines from 2,300 to more than 9,700, Reals said. (The corps has 190,000 men.)

Previously unavailable jobs are opening up to women. A year ago, Reals became the first woman to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general from a field of both men and women Marines. (In 1978 Margaret Brewer became the first female Marine general under an older promotional system; she retired in 1980.)

"Because I'm the only woman general in the U.S. Marine Corps, a lot of people think I'm an oddity," said Reals, director of the corps' manpower, plans and policy division at its headquarters in Washington. "They think it's nice to have this strange person come speak to their group.

"I've talked to a national meeting of the Girl Scouts and been a judge at the Virginia Junior Miss contest. I've even received an honorary doctorate, though I don't even have an undergraduate degree."

But there is a darker side of being in the public eye, Reals said. "During the last year, I've been the focal point of a lot of interest by people. Some of it has not been favorable.

"Some women tend to think that only men think the corps has gone too far, too fast in the changes it has made. That's not correct. There is a segment of women who think that the changes in the corps have not been . . . positive.

"These women do not agree that there should be a woman general, and they don't believe that women should occupy many of the jobs they now have in the corps.

"But the clock is not going to be turned back. We will not go back because the U.S. Marine Corps-- as an institution --does not believe that it would be the right thing to do."

Women first served in the Marines in World War I, when 305 enlisted. Called Marinettes, they filled clerical jobs that freed men for combat duty. The last Marinette was deactivated in 1922. A WMA spokeswoman said that about 35 Marinettes--one in nine--are still alive. However only one, Charlotte Austin, 87, of Norwalk, a retired Veterans Administration loan processor, attended last week's convention.

During World War II there were 20,000 women Marines who signed up beginning in 1943. At their peak strength--more than 19,000--their numbers were sufficient to free the equivalent of a division of men to go overseas for combat. By the end of the war the types of jobs they could hold had mushroomed from 30 to 200, according to convention-goer Navy Lt. Donna Fournier, who is doing research for a book about the history of women in the American military.

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