First Female Marine General Blazed Trail for Women in Corps

Video by Sgt. Todd Hunter | DMA Marines

Story by Sgt. Priscilla Sneden | Headquarters Marine Corps

Brig. Gen. Margaret A. Brewer, the first woman to be promoted to Brigadier General in the Marine Corps, passed away Jan. 2.

Brewer cleared the way for future female Marines throughout her career, said Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.

“Throughout her three decades of service to our Corps and country, she truly led from the front and helped the Marine Corps integrate women more fully into the force,” Amos said.

In a June 7, 1980, article in the Owosso, Mich., newspaper The Argus-Press, Brewer said she “never considered any other service … my mother insists I was singing the Marine’s Hymn when I was only five years old.”

Brewer’s desire to be a Marine was reaffirmed by a stirring speech heard while still in high school. Her mother, Anne Brewer, took her to hear a speech from the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.

After responding to an advertisement in the college newspaper and successfully completing two six-week officer candidate-training sessions, the University of Michigan graduate accepted an appointment as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in March 1952.

Like thousands of Marines today, she joined amidst a war – the Korean War.

Early in her career, the Durand, Mich., native made strides to integrate female Marines into the male-dominated Corps.

Brewer was one of the first women subsequent to World War II trained in communications. She received on-the-job training as a watch officer at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif. At the time, women weren’t authorized to attend technical schools. Shortly thereafter, she transferred to Brooklyn, N. Y., to establish the first women’s communications platoon within the reserve program.

From 1956 to 1958, then Capt. Brewer served as commanding officer of the woman Marine companies at Norfolk, Va., and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. She went on to serve as a platoon commander for woman officer candidates at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., and a woman officer selection officer in Lexington, Ky.

Brewer spent three years at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., where she oversaw the operation of the mess clubs and was promoted to major in 1961.

In 1963, Brewer returned to Quantico to serve as the executive officer and later commanding officer of the Woman Officer School. She oversaw female officer candidates training as well as enlisted women’s training at the noncommissioned officer leadership school.

In 1966, Brewer transferred to 6th Marine Corps District in Atlanta to be the public affairs officer and was subsequently promoted to lieutenant colonel, the most senior rank women could hold at the time.

She assumed the public affairs officer billet with no formal training besides a two-week course at the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind.

Capt. Jack Paxton, now retired, remembers checking into 6th MCD as a newly commissioned second lieutenant, formerly a master sergeant, who had just returned from service in Vietnam.

“She did not know what to make of me at first,” he recalled with a chuckle during a phone interview.

He remembered Brewer as a soft-spoken woman who had her own style.

“She was tremendous,” he said. “If she had to admonish you for anything, she would take you aside to tell you you did this right or you did this wrong.

“I learned a lot from her,” he said.

Brewer served during a time filled with changes for women in the armed services.

President Lyndon B. Johnson repealed Public Law 90-130 Nov. 8, 1967, removing the limit on the number of women in service and granted women promotion to colonel.

In 1968, Brewer assumed responsibility as the deputy director of Women Marines at Headquarters Marine Corps, during which she was promoted to colonel. Her responsibilities included the inspection of all female Marines from clothing, personnel and training to facilities and health, welfare and morale. Soon after her arrival, the Inspector General team assumed responsibility of inspecting women just as they did men, as the Corps further pushed integration of the sexes.

Brewer returned to Quantico in 1971 to serve as assistant to the director, and chief of the support department for the Marine Corps Education Center.

In 1972, then Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Everton Cushman, Jr., changed existing policy to allow women to be assigned to the Fleet Marine Force units. The next year, Brewer became the seventh and final director of Women Marines, advising the commandant and his staff on matters pertaining to women in the Marine Corps.

“Many people felt that the women were somehow a separate Corps which was never the case,” Brewer said in a 1983 interview with the Marine Corps History Division. “But that was the perception that there sometimes was, because of the separate women’s administrative units, as well as the fact that there was a director of women Marines.”

During her time as director, Brewer actively fought to preserve women’s presence in the Corps and better integrate them with their male counterparts. Separate women Marine companies were disbanded, and women became eligible for career-type formal and technical training and to obtain the rank of sergeant major.

Brewer played a crucial role as the Corps began to develop regulations for pregnancy and parenthood. The principles adopted then, are still in place for female Marines today.

“We required that the woman inform the commander that she was pregnant,” Brewer said. “She would be counseled in the fact that if she remained in the Marine Corps, that she would have to fulfill all of her responsibilities to the Marine Corps, and that she would not receive preferential treatment as far as assignments were concerned.”

As her tenure progressed, women were allowed in all military occupational specialties, except small arms technicians, pilots, aircrew and infantry and artillery fields. Women slowly began integrating into training at Officer Candidate School and The Basic School.

Working alongside the deputy chief of staff for manpower, Brewer summarized recommendations and submitted a report to Cushman, suggesting how to more effectively use women within the Corps.

One recommendation was to review all existing regulations and policies, eliminating or revising those that differentiated between the treatment of men and women without valid, rational justification.

Cushman further directed immediate action to assign women more challenging billets, to include direct assignments to command and prestigious career-enhancing staff jobs.

The most controversial of the recommendations pertained to the establishment of a pilot program to assign women to the Fleet Marine Forces.

“This was really a significant change in policy because of course the FMF are the combat forces of the Marine Corps,” Brewer said in the 1983 interview. “And here we were establishing this program that indicated women would be assigned to these combat forces, although not in a combat role as such.”

The pilot program, which consisted of sending 10 to 20 female Marines to the 1st Marine Division and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing respectively, was deemed successful, and female Marines have served alongside their male counterparts ever since.

“It was a great transition during this period of time,” said Brewer. “Not only were new occupational fields being opened to women, training programs changed, there were also planned increases in numerical strength goals.”

In 1978, as the Corps made strides to further integrate women and expand their roles, the Office of Women Marines disbanded, and Brewer returned to the public affairs field. While serving as the deputy director of the Division of Information at Headquarters Marine Corps, then President Jimmy Carter nominated her for appointment to brigadier general. The Corps was the last of the services to appoint a female flag officer.

Brewer made history May 11, 1978, as she became the first female general officer in the Corps.

“I knew that there were many people that were surprised that the Marine Corps did promote a woman to general officer rank,” said Brewer. “When I was selected, I knew that there would be interest because it was a first. But I was not expecting quite the great amount of interest that was expressed because there had been women general officers and admirals in the other services for a number of years.”

Brewer had one more first in her career. The Division of Information was redesignated as the Division of Public Affairs Dec. 1, 1979. Brewer then became the first director of Public Affairs. She served in that capacity until retirement in July 1980.

“It’s never easy being the first, but she was both the first female general officer and the first director of Public Affairs and met the challenges and responsibilities of each with professionalism and grace,” Amos said.

Following her retirement from the Corps, Brewer served in several roles with the Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities.

She passed away at the age of 82.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the loss,” Amos said.

“She served during an era when many thought that women had no place in the Corps, but she proved critics wrong time and again,” he said. “Brigadier General Brewer was an amazing and courageous woman who has left an indelible mark on the rich legacy of our Corps, and she will be missed.”

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