The Era of the Bridge Between Old and New
BY: Corrina J. Martell (Sgt USMC 1978-1983)
The mid 1970’s to mid 1980’s was a marked time of transition for women in the Marine Corps.
At a glance, the woman Marine of the mid 70’s to mid 80’s may not have looked much different than her sisters in the decades preceding her. But a closer look would see her with one foot proudly in the past and the other one eagerly poised towards the future, eyes fixed acutely on the horizon ahead of her – aware that she was on the threshold of profound change that was about to happen.
The woman Marine of this time period was as comfortable with freeing a man to fight as she was with picking up her own rifle and contemplating the idea that she could someday be in the fight herself. She straddled both worlds – her service forming a bridge between the old and the new. She answered to Marine, specified herself as woman Marine when necessary, and for quicker gender distinction used the acronym WM. She had no nickname.
During the 1970’s women Marines were assigned to Fleet Marine Forces for the first time, and by 1975 they could be assigned to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot/air crews.
Women Marines during this period were qualifying in the fleet on the KD course with the M16 rifle, transitioning from the blue women utilities uniform to camouflage utilities, and undergoing training for NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) warfare. At a time when combat training was still closed to them in boot camp, many women Marines fresh from their MOS schools in fields such as Communications, Motor Transport, and Electronics, soon found themselves issued 782 gear and going into the field digging fighting holes, learning how to pack an ALICE pack, and being given crash courses in combat survival.
This era of transition was evidenced even in boot camp. After the completion of the new women recruit training barracks in 1974, women recruits continued to also be housed and trained in Building 903 which was the last building standing of the original women Marine training complex built on Parris Island during World War II. Building 903 continued to train recruits simultaneously along with the new barracks until early 1980, defining an era where the old and new would continue to exist side by side for a little over a decade.
Depending on which years they served, and perhaps even depending on their drill instructors, memories of boot camp “make-up” classes and “tea parties” often vary greatly among women Marines who served during this time period. In my platoon graduation yearbook from 1978, there are colored pictures of various stages of boot camp that, judging by the hairdos, look close to 10 years behind at that time. One of the photos shows a recruit in makeup class calming applying a makeup brush to her face. I don’t know if that actually happened ten years before I enlisted or not, or if it was a staged picture. But whenever I look at it I shake my head. It was a picture too old for the yearbook and not accurate with the time.
The “make-up” class that I attended in 1978 was not at all what the name implies. Like everything else in boot camp, its purpose was to produce a change in us – to etch in our minds that when in uniform even the colors on our lips were going to be scrutinized. We were ushered into a classroom where we were told we were going to be taught how to NOT look like harlots. We had to sit stiffly in front of desk mirrors and a tray of some make-up items and as I remember, we didn’t even take off our field jackets. There was an “instructor” of sorts, but the drill instructors were walking up and down the aisles glaring at the tops of our desks – daring us to do anything wrong. I don’t remember touching anything on the makeup tray except the lipstick. The rest of the tray must have held face powder and creams, or whatever – I didn’t really look because I was too nervous under the drill instructors’ glares to let my eyes rest too long on any of it. We had to quickly try on different shades of lipstick to see which one coordinated with both the red cord on our service uniform cover as well as our skin tone. We were in our blue utilities that day and didn’t have our service uniform covers with us, so there must have been one in the classroom to use as a reference. In the end, the “instructor” told each of us what color we would wear. Mine had a slight “red orangey” hue to it, a color I never wore. It was ugly and hideous. I was mortified. Some of us must have been given the famous “Montezuma Red”, but I don’t remember. I think I would have preferred the “Montezuma Red” to the color I was given.
And then it was over. That was it. That was the so-called “makeup” class. It had lasted all of maybe 30 minutes, and then we were marched back out into the cold winter air –still in our field jackets. I don’t remember putting the lipstick on again in boot camp until graduation day.
What really happened at the “tea parties” during that time when so much was beginning to change for women in the Marine Corps is a story that doesn’t often get told. When I hear the subject brought up in the usual way that I hear it talked about among the newer generation of Marines, I always think to myself, “What? That is not what happened. Do they actually think we had a tea party???” The event I remember in 1978 was not a tea party at all (whatever a tea party is), and maybe it never was such even before my time. It was actually a lunch that took place a few days before we graduated. We had to wear our service uniforms (our winter service alphas) and instead of the chow hall, we were marched to a room somewhere on base with long tables set up for lunch. There were officers and some other dignitaries there that had been invited to attend. As I remember, we were told that the sole purpose for us being there was to become familiar with how to conduct ourselves in social settings where officers and dignitaries were present. I suppose somewhere along the way tea instead of coffee must have been an option to drink – hence the name “tea party”. I remember most of us were too stiff to do much except eat and stare in wonder at the brass all around us – trying to feign attempts at conversation when we were talked to. How could we even relax? We were still in boot camp mode. But we did try.
Partway through lunch we were allowed to use the head. In the toilet stall, when I lifted my skirt, I remember being surprised to see that after all those weeks of training my legs still looked like a woman’s legs. I was sure they had changed – somehow grown knobby and ugly like a man’s legs. After all I’d been through, how could my legs still look like a woman’s? Of everything that probably happened at that lunch, so called a “tea party”, that’s what I remember the most – standing in the head, staring at my legs, amazed that at the end of boot camp my body still looked like a woman.
As I look back over the years, I feel fortunate to have served during that transitional time. When I talk to women Marines who came before me, I understand the world and time they served in, because as a young woman Marine I had tasted parts of it that still wrapped itself around us at that time. And when I talk to my youngest daughter who is now serving as a second generation woman Marine, I understand her era of service as well, because I helped break the ground for it those many years ago, and rode the early waves of change.
So to those band of sisters in the past, present, and future – but especially to my comrades from those transitional years who were a part of that bridge between old and new – Semper Fi ladies.