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    Women Celebrate 40 Years in the Marine Band

    Women Celebrate 40 years in the Marine Band

    Photo By Gunnery Sgt. Amanda Simmons | The women of "The President's Own" United States Marine Band pose for a photo.... read more read more



    Story by Gunnery Sgt. Amanda Simmons 

    "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band


    February 18, 1973
    Dear Col. Harpham,

    I understand there is a French horn opening in the band in August. If it is agreeable with you, I would like to audition for this position. I realize there are no female members in the Marine Band at this time, but I believe there are a few in some of the other bands, and I know I could handle any and all of the duties required. I have been thinking about this for quite some time, hoping some other woman would be accepted before me so that I would not have to be first. I am not a Woman’s Lib militant, and I’m not trying to make trouble for you, but I really do want to be in your band – very much! I cannot think of any problems or details that could not be worked out. If you will seriously consider me, I will be in the Washington, D.C. area the week of March 4-10 and would like to audition during that time, preferably March 7 or 8. If this is not convenient for you or is too early, please give me a different date and time. I will be graduating May 1, 1973 and would be available any time after that.

    Very sincerely, Ruth Johnson

    On March 7, 1973, at age 21, Ruth Johnson successfully won the Marine Band French horn audition and went on to become the first female to enlist in “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band on May 16, 1973. The late Lt. Col. Dale Harpham, USMC (Ret.), Marine Band Director from 1972-74, made the decision to enlist Johnson and recalled in a prior interview for NOTES, “At the time, there were no legal ramifications against admitting women. I wanted to see this happen because I wanted the Marine Band to be the best.”

    According to the Women’s Marine Association, the Secretary of the Navy permitted women to enroll for clerical duty in the Marine Corps in 1918. The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in February 1943, but it wasn’t until 1975 that the Corps approved the assignment of women to all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor, and pilot/air crew. In a press release dated April 25, 1973, the United States Marine Corps stated: “In its quest for more job opportunities for women, the Marine Corps is about to open up bands, including the U.S. Marine Band and Drum and Bugle Corps, to women Marines.” Johnson’s request to audition for “The President’s Own” may have prompted the admission of women to all Marine Corps bands.

    Staff Sgt. Johnson received a considerable amount of media attention that first year, becoming the subject of countless feature articles and even made an appearance on the television show “What’s My Line?” Johnson stayed in the Marine Band for eight years prior to moving on to a career as an air traffic controller.

    Johnson was not alone for long in her endeavor. Just two months later, Elizabeth Eitel reported for duty as an oboist followed shortly by flutist Gail Gifford.

    “My father was a member of the American Bandmasters Association and he heard through the annual convention that the military bands had begun to enlist women,” Master Gunnery Sgt. Elizabeth (Eitel) Schaefer, USMC (Ret.), explained. “Coming to Washington, D.C., where our country’s heritage is centered, was such a thrill. I could hardly believe it was possible.”

    When Schaefer arrived at Marine Barracks Washington upon graduating from the University of Montana in Missoula, she quickly discovered there were some challenges with being one of the first women in an all male unit. There were no locker rooms and more importantly, no women’s uniforms.

    “At first, we were wearing the men’s uniforms, including altered jackets, trousers, and cover,” noted Schaefer. “Later we received varied lengths of skirts.” She even recalls wearing a seersucker uniform at one point.

    According to Schaefer, the men treated them respectfully and were “gallant.” Despite being treated well, she admitted that the focus on gender did not diminish until about 1990 after roughly 40 women had served in the Marine Band.

    While women continued to make great strides in the enlisted ranks, the Marine Band did not have a female officer until 2004.

    Assistant Director Capt. Michelle A. Rakers joined “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in May 1998 as a trumpeter/cornetist. She was the third woman to join this section, preceded by Nancy Taylor in 1990 and Master Sgt. Susan Rider in 1997.

    Following an audition, Capt. Rakers was appointed Assistant Director and commissioned a first lieutenant in July 2004. She was promoted to her current rank by then-Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael W. Hagee on Jan. 1, 2006.

    She is both the first female Assistant Director and first female commissioned officer in the history of “The President’s Own.”

    “I am grateful for the opportunity to conduct this band, but also indebted to the women who have forged the pathway for this to become a reality,” said Capt. Rakers. “It is so important to have women in executive positions, to be those mentors and role models for all young people, girls and boys alike, ultimately retiring those old doubts that women are not capable, or confident enough, or whatever the predisposition might have been in the past.”

    May 2005 marked another milestone for women with the addition of the Marine Band’s first female vocalist, mezzo-soprano Gunnery Sgt. Sara Dell’Omo. Marine Band Director John Philip Sousa utilized civilian female vocalists while touring with the Marine Band as early as the 1890s, but Dell’Omo is the first official Marine Band female vocalist. She not only tours with the Marine Band as both a soloist and concert moderator, but is heavily involved with local Marine Band, Marine Chamber Orchestra, and Marine Chamber Ensembles performances.

    In celebration of the 40th anniversary of women in the Marine Band, clarinetist Master Gunnery Sgt. Ruth McDonald, who is the senior ranking woman in the band, is coordinating a Marine Chamber Ensembles concert which will be held in John Philip Sousa Band Hall on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 2 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public.

    “I think that it’s an important milestone, however brief in the context of the Marine Band’s 215 year history, to recognize the past 40 years of women in the band,” notes McDonald. “In that short time, women have made significant contributions to the organization. Women have played principal chairs in the violin, clarinet, piccolo, flute, oboe, French horn, and harp positions.”

    The program will showcase works written by female composers; specifically, McDonald will include works by those female composers who struggled to be recognized due to gender bias, such as Clara Schuman, Louise Farrenc, and Rebecca Clarke. The program will also feature composers well known among audiences of today, such as Libby Larsen and Jennifer Higdon.

    “In addition, we’d like to celebrate the current women of the Marine Band by featuring as many as possible to perform on this recital,” concludes McDonald. “We’d also love to have our female Marine Band alumnae return for this event to help celebrate this milestone and share their stories.”

    Currently the Marine Band boasts 46 female members, and 106 women have served since Ruth Johnson enlisted in 1973. Women make up about 30 percent of the Marine Band, but only about six percent of the Marine Corps. For a complete list of women who served in “The President’s Own,” visit



    Date Taken: 05.16.2013
    Date Posted: 05.16.2013 15:37
    Story ID: 107048
    Location: WASHINGTON, DC, US 

    Web Views: 1,280
    Downloads: 0