On Aug. 12, 1918 — with what would turn out to be only a few months of World War I remaining — the United States Marine Corps Reserve officially began accepting applications from women for the first time.
Of about 5,000 applications from women around the country, the Marines selected only about 300. Three of those women who enlisted — Ouida Okey of Graysville in Monroe County, Mildred Cowell of Marietta and Mary A. Williams of Youngstown — were from Ohio.
During World War I, more than 35,000 American women served in the U.S. military.
“I think it’s really interesting how — at this particular moment and after the war, when women’s rights were changing — I think [Okey] was kind of a groundswell of other roles that women were doing,” says Lily Birkhimer of Ohio History Connection. “So it kind of built on a really long history of women working toward these things, and she came in right before some major changes in women’s rights.”
According to a March 31, 1919 Woodsfield High School Dynamite newspaper article, “Miss Okey is in the Casualty Section of the Adjutant and Inspector’s Department and likes her work immensely.” (Cowell and Williams worked in the same department and section in Washington, D.C.)
The article continues: “A Graduate of Woodsfield High School and having a business training secured at Marietta Business College, she is well fitted for her work. … They look after the details connected with discharges, allowances, the welfare of the wounded, their recreational activities and many other things. Besides this, the girls drill, do guard duty, etc.”
Okey served from Oct. 22, 1918 to July 31, 1919. She was appointed to the rank of corporal on May 23, 1919. Okey’s full Marines uniform is on display at Ohio History Connection, as part of the World War I exhibit.
“It’s important to recognize that the large-scale involvement of women in the war effort during WWI was a key factor in securing women’s suffrage, which was enacted with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920,” Birkhimer writes.
Okey’s is one of the hidden-gem Central Ohio stories of World War I. Learn more about local World War I history on the most recent episode of Columbus Neighborhoods.
Letters Home During World War I
Hundreds of men from Central Ohio’s Jewish community became doughboys. Letters from one soldier to his sweetheart back home reveal much about life at Camp Sherman, a World War I training camp in Chillicothe.