On December 20, 2013, the U.S. senate confirmed Vice Adm. Michelle Howard for the service’s No. 2 post, making her the first female four-star admiral in the Navy’s 238-year history. Her promotion to vice chief of naval operations, expected for early 2014, will also make her the first African-American woman to attain four-star rank in Pentagon history.
The 1982 Naval Academy graduate and surface warfare officer has set many firsts in her career. She was the first black woman to command a ship — the dock landing ship Rushmore in 1999 — and went on to command Amphibious Squadron 7 and later Expeditionary Strike Group 2.
In 2009, Howard led a U.S. command warship against Somali pirates in the Arabian Sea. Task Force 151 became a rescue mission for Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, who was taken hostage on the ship’s lifeboat. It was up to Vice Admiral Michele Howard to save the captain before the boat hit shore. She, along with the assistance of Navy SEALS, captured the ship, killing all but one of the pirates and bringing the captain out safely. Her voice is depicted in the film “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks, which relives the task force mission.
Though Howard has risen up the ranks, it wasn’t always easy. “Men have the luxury of being average,” Howard told Time in a 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.”
But according to Howard, her command of a ship surprised people more because of her race than her gender. “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 recalled.
Howard also had to deal with sexism. Howard, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982, told Time of early hostility in the Navy, believing she was overlooked for assignments that went to less qualified men. “What’s great about the Navy is that despite the few knuckleheads that exist,” she said, “there are a lot of folks who are professional, and who will grade you on your performance and not on how you look.”
Howard even recalled the sexist remarks when she took an officer’s slot on a warship with a woman also serving as second-in-command. “I was not prepared for the focus on it—`My God, there’s a warship with two women in the top positions—it’s going to sink just from their presence.’ It was hilarious.”
She is married to Wayne Cowles, a retired U.S. Marine. Howard is the recipient of the 2008 Women of Color Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Career Achievement Award, 2009 Dominion Power Strong Men and Women Excellence in Leadership Award, and the 2011 USO Military Woman of the Year. On February 1, 2013, Howard was honored with the “Chairman’s Award” at the 44th NAACP Image Awards.