As a schoolgirl in the early 1970s, Michelle Howard decided she wanted to attend a military academy. An older brother set her straight: None admitted women. “I didn’t believe him. I thought he was messing with me,” she recalls. Her mother Phillipa told her that was true, “but if you still want to do this six years from now, you should apply and if you’re rejected, we’ll sue the government.”
That wasn’t necessary. Congress ordered the service academies to admit women a few years later. The U.S. Navy gradually opened career paths and the Pentagon lifted the last restrictions on women’s combat roles in 2015.
Howard graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 and went on to become the first woman to command a ship, the first to become a four-star admiral and now the first woman in charge of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, and U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa. She was also the first woman and African-American to serve as vice chief of naval operations.
There’s one other line of note on her resume: Howard led the operation that rescued cargo ship Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009. That drama unfolded on her third day in charge of a task force sent to end piracy in the Arabian Sea. Navy SEAL snipers killed three kidnappers and rescued Phillips unharmed. In the blockbuster movie about the rescue, her character’s voice was only heard on the phone.
If the moviemakers had shown the admiral as true to life, they would have had to cast a diminutive actress. Howard stands 5 feet 1 inch tall (1.5 meters). When promoted to four-star officer, she had to special-order the shoulder boards because they weren’t made in women’s sizes.
“We associate height with leadership,” Howard says. “When people see you at first, they [react] like ‘I was expecting someone bigger.” Sailors, airmen and soldiers are circumspect, “but civilians are quite comfortable going, ‘Whoa!’”
Size was just another obstacle for her to overcome. She speaks frankly about challenges she faced over the years, from being a young midshipman to becoming an admiral, when she found herself the only woman and person of color in the room.
“Trailblazing is not for wimps or the faint of heart,” says the admiral, invoking the example of the pioneers who settled the American West. “Packing up, selling off all your household goods, getting in a wagon and going across the country is not something for people without fortitude.”
And how did she prove she was not a “wimp”?
“That wasn’t the goal. The goal was always to be the best at my job and then the rest will come,” she says.
Now she helps steer NATO’s operations on land and sea. Which hat might the 56-year-old admiral wear next? She laughs and says, “I’m going to stick with sailing seas.”