*She and the First Lady have more than a name in common. As African American women, their “firsts” rank is another. Vice Admiral Michelle Howard was nominated by President Barack Obama for a fourth star on Friday, making her the first woman in Navy history to attain the rank—assuming Senate approval—of full admiral.
Howard currently serves as deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans, and strategy. She has been tapped to serve as vice chief of naval operations, the Navy’s second-ranking officer, and a single step below the chief of naval operations, the service’s top officer.
“Someday, sure, there’ll be a woman CNO,” she told Time nearly 14 years ago, when she was commanding the USS Rushmore, an amphibious dock landing ship, out of San Diego. “It will happen of its own accord.”
Her “upgrade” comes at a demanding time for the Navy, trying to pivot to the Pacific amid a funding crunch that has the service scrambling. “The best ambassador,” she likes to say, “is a warship.”
The Army tapped Ann Dunwoody for four stars in 2008, and the Air Force moved to promote Janet Wolfenbarger to its highest rank in 2012. Time interviewed them together last year, shortly before Dunwoody retired.
According to the Pentagon’s latest demographic report, 14.5% of active-duty military personnel are women. They represent 13.5% of the Army, 16.4% of the Navy and 19% of the Air Force. Women account for only 6.8% of the Marine Corps, whose highest-ranking woman achieved three stars before retiring earlier this year.
“Men have the luxury of being average,” Howard said back in that January 2000 interview. “When men walk onto a ship, on board they have the luxury of being average. When you walk in as a woman, that assumption does not come with you—you need to prove yourself.”
Admitting that her command of a ship surprised people more because she is an African-American—than because she is a woman, Howard states, “For some of the sailors, it was a big deal—not because of the woman thing, but because of the African-American thing,” she recalled. “I literally had people coming up, wanting to have their picture taken with me—this is the first time this has happened, where a minority woman has had command of a ship.”
She was asked whether it was tougher dealing with sexism or racism in the service. “Sexism within the service, and racism outside the service,” she responded. “Maybe that’s because we started to integrate the officer corps starting at the end of World War II, as far as race was concerned.”
Howard noted that she had come in for her share of ribbing as commander of the Rushmore at 39 (she’s 53 now). “There is one guy on board who refers to me as `Grandma,’” she said, “rather than the `Old Man.’”
Read more here: