News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

April 18, 2009

STEPHANIE SALTER: In a generation, a sea change has come to the U.S. Navy

TERRE HAUTE — It was one of those “driveway moments,” in which the contents of the car radio broadcast keep you from turning off the engine and going on into your house, office or social engagement.

On National Public Radio’s evening news show, “All Things Considered,” Robert Siegel was about to interview the U.S. Navy commander of a new multi-national counter-piracy task force in the waters off Somalia. Said Siegel:

“Rear Admiral Michelle Howard … at sea on the USS Boxer.”

Michelle???

For a split-second, I thought, “Oh, right. Some French-American guy named Michele.” But, no. Clear as a ship’s bell, a woman’s voice greeted Siegel.

Creaky old feminist that I am, I nearly wept. And not for the first time in my life did I give thanks for the context, for all the years and experiences that allowed me to appreciate the size and weight of a Michelle in command.

Young women and girls take such things for granted, which is fine because that is what youth always does. But I know Adm. Michelle Howard did not happen in a vacuum. Nor did her slow, steady rise through the ranks of the United States Navy occur because a bunch of men woke up one morning in a good mood and said, “You know, females probably can command ships and their crews just as well as guys can. Why don’t we give them a try?”

Michelle Howard graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982. That was only six years after the first female midshipmen in academy history had been admitted — which took Congressional legislation. Passage of that law required the efforts of countless American women who were branded as everything from “bitches” to “subversives” because they demanded equal opportunity and pay for equal work, education levels and capabilities.

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