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Reflections On The Careers Of Female Marine Corps Officers

Marianne Waldrop is the third of four generations of her family to serve in the Marine Corps. She is the only woman.

“So when I came in the Marine Corps, one of the biggest foundational supports that I had, as crazy as this story is going to sound, is that the Marine officer instructor — so I was ROTC — there was a active-duty major that came into the unit, and he was — this was in 1985 — and he was subject to the fallout of the units being bombed in Beirut,” she said. “So he was war-hardened, probably pretty bitter. He lost a lot of friends, and he was an infantry officer himself, and Vietnam experience. When he came in, he told me, and I was the only female in the unit at this point, Navy ROTC that was interested in becoming a Marine. And he looked at me and he said, ‘I don’t want women in my Marine Corps.’ He said, ‘but I don’t get that luxury. I’m not the president.' . . . And he said, 'If I’m going to put my name on you, before I send you to officer candidate school, you have to do a first class — which is way above average — on the male physical fitness test.'"

She started training with her male counterparts and learned how to do pull-ups. By the time she went to officer candidate school, she could do fourteen dead hang pull-ups and a first class male physical fitness test.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, he probably wasn’t legally allowed to tell me that, right?” she said. “I can meet the standard, he can’t stand in my way, right? But as a 19-year-old, wanting to be a Marine, compelled to want to go in the Marine Corps, daughter of a Marine. And he found out that there was a bit of me that was willing to fall back on being a Navy person and he found out my dad was a Marine. And he said, ‘no daughter of a Marine is going in the Navy.’ So he was dead set to make me effective in the Marine Corps.”

Waldrop went on to serve as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps from 1987 until her retirement in 2011, achieving the rank of colonel.

“The administration and the way records are kept didn’t understand how to put a male PFT score in my record, right?” she said. “So I did a female PFT for record, and then for morale, and good leadership, setting the example, I always ran the PFT when my Marines ran it.”

Waldrop did this because she knew it mattered. The Marines she led knew she was willing to meet or exceed the standards they were held to, without falling back on the lower female fitness standard.

After her retirement, she earned a doctorate degree in philosophy. For her dissertation, she pursued a personal curiosity: what was it that allowed her, and other female leaders in the Marine Corps, to thrive where so few women do? Her dissertation is titled Understanding Women Leaders in a Male-Dominated Profession: A Study of the United States Marine Corps’ Women Generals. When her research was published in 2016, 10 women in Marine Corps history had reached the rank of general.

“So I either get, ‘only 10?’ or ‘wow, there were 10? I didn’t even know there was one woman general in the Marine Corps,’” she said.

Waldrop interviewed eight of them.

"Bottom line is, I found they had very little in common," she said. "It was very eye-opening that there is so little."

Each of the women had unique reasons for joining and unique challenges. The first shared trait she identified was the scope of their career strategies.

“There is literature about women, and they say that they would succeed more regularly if they had a long-term career strategy," she said. "These women did not.”

Instead, they took opportunities as they appeared. Their strategies were short term, adapting as their circumstances evolved.

“Second was, at the end of every one of my interviews I had to ask. They got so wrapped up in the ‘I did this, you know, these were my strategies.’ And I said, ‘Well, what was it like being a woman in the Marine Corps?’ And they were like, 'I was a Marine. I wasn’t a woman Marine.'”

This formed the basis of Waldrop’s second and third conclusions. Each of these women embraced the values and culture of the Marine Corps so entirely that it became a primary part of their identity. She believes that defining themselves within the culture of Marine Corps was instrumental in their success.

This is true of Waldrop’s personal experience as well. Her first priority was being a good Marine and a good leader. It went without saying that she could do these things as a woman.

“I am demonstrating. I am walking my talk. I am doing good things. And people go, ‘I know a woman that was a great Marine,’ not ‘I know a good woman Marine.’ I am making a difference in perception just by doing my job.”

Women currently make up just under eight percent of the Marine Corps. Since the conclusion of Waldrop’s study, one more woman has reached the rank of general. General Roberta Shea was selected for promotion March of this year.