On Breaking Ground

Admiral Michelle Howard ’82, USN (Ret.), served as 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

When Michelle Howard announced when she was 12 that she planned to attend a service academy, her mom had to break the bad news to her: women, at the time, weren’t allowed in. The silver lining? It didn’t have to be that way. “If they still don’t let women in when you’re old enough to apply,” she told Howard, “We’ll sue the government.”

It turned out to be a non-issue: the Naval Academy began admitting women in 1976, two years before Howard arrived. But idea embedded in her mother’s words stuck with her. It might be difficult, but anything was possible if you were committed to the journey.

In her career, Admiral Howard has proved that almost anything is possible: in 1999, she took command of the RUSHMORE, becoming the first African-American woman to command a naval ship. She later took part in tsunami relief efforts off the coast of Indonesia and Sri Lanka when she deployed with Expeditionary Strike Group 5. She was part of the team that rescued Captain Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates. Among countless firsts in her career, she was the first African-American and first woman to serve as Vice Chief of Naval Operations, and first female four-star admiral.

Every step forward was a challenge in its own right, and often contained an endless set of tiny, unexpected challenges within it. On her first sea tour, for example there no steel-toed shoes in her size in the system, so they had to be ordered from a correctional facility. Thirty-two years later, when Howard was the first woman to become a four-star admiral, she had to have a specially made uniform.

She’s worked hard—through both formal channels and informal mentorship—to make sure that outstanding performers have the opportunity to excel and don’t get overlooked. She organized “Women at Sea” programs in tandem with others at the Coast Guard, and hosted events for women at their houses.

If it wasn’t an easy path, she appreciates that her trailblazing has made life a little bit easier for those who came after her. The number of women and African American women in high-level roles has increased. And no detail is overlooked “By my third tour at sea, [women] could go into any uniform shop and buy shoes off the shelf just like anyone else,” Howard said.

Find power in your peers. “When there’s no one senior to you who has had the specific experiences you have, lean on your peers. I refer to it as the “quilting bee opportunity.” Pioneer women used to get together and do quilting bees. The point was never the quilt: it was to get together and share experiences and wisdom. Share what you know. Teach others who are new.”

Source: Shipmate: September 2018