Col. Margaret A. Brewer speaks to the press at the Marine Annex in Arlington, V.a. on February 13, 1976. Brewer was the first woman to become a general in the Marine Corps in 1978. (Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post)

Margaret A. Brewer, 82, a retired brigadier general who was the first woman to hold the rank of general in the Marine Corps and who led the Marines’ public affairs division late in her career, died Jan. 2 at Greenspring retirement community in Springfield. She had Alzheimer’s disease.

Her death was confirmed by retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Foundation.

Gen. Brewer joined the Marine Corps in 1952 and held a variety of roles in officer recruiting and training, personnel management, and public affairs before she was named a brigadier general in 1978.

As a colonel, she had been director of women in the Marine Corps since 1973, but her position was eliminated in 1977, as women were integrated more fully into the corps. After serving as deputy director of the information division, she was nominated to lead the division — but the director was required to be a general.

Because the Marine Corps did not allow women to be generals at the time, Gen. Brewer received her star by special appointment from President Jimmy Carter and approval of both houses of Congress. (In 1985, Gail M. Reals became the first woman promoted to general through the Marine Corps ranks.)

Gen. Brewer reorganized the department, which was renamed the Division of Public Affairs, before her retirement in 1980.

“She served during an era when many thought that women had no place in the Corps, but she proved critics wrong time and again,” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said in a statement.

“Everybody looked up to her,” said Sara L. Pritchett, a retired colonel who had known Gen. Brewer since the 1960s. Pritchett described female Marines’ role at the time as “in support of the men. ‘Free a man to fight’ – that was the motto in those days.”

During Gen. Brewer’s early years in the Marine Corps, women were restricted primarily to support roles, including clerical work, communications and personnel. She was among the first female officers who showed that women could assume important positions of leadership. She supervised male officers, and acquaintances said she never complained of bias or backlash from her male cohorts.

“She’s legendary,” Vaught said. “She’s one of the pioneers.”

Margaret Ann Brewer was born July 1, 1930, in Durand, Mich. She grew up in Michigan but graduated from the Catholic High School of Baltimore. She later chaired the school’s board of trustees.

She received a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Michigan in 1952, then joined the Marine Corps.

“The Korean conflict had begun,” Gen. Brewer told the Marine Corps Times in 2003, and “they said if you accept the commission you’ll be ordered to active duty.

“I had to make a decision. I decided to accept the commission.”

She commanded female Marine units early in her career and became a training and public affairs specialist. She received two awards of the Legion of Merit.

After military retirement, Gen. Brewer served for many years on the board of Catholic Charities of Arlington County, where she lived. She was a member of Arlington’s Cathedral of St. Thomas More.

She was a board member of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, which spearheaded development of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, and served on panels of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, which opened in 1997.

She had no immediate survivors.