Michelle Obama sponsors new Navy submarine, carries on White House tradition

On Monday, first lady Michelle Obama officially sponsored the USS Illinois, which will be one of the newest Virginia-class nuclear-powered boats scheduled to enter the fleet by 2015, according to a White House statement. 

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“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as sponsor of the USS Illinois,” the first lady said, according to the statement. “This submarine is a tribute to the strength, courage and determination that our Navy families exhibit every day."

The Illinois is the second ship the first lady has sponsored since coming to the White House. She sponsored the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, based in Alameda, Calif., earlier this year, according to administration officials. 

Former first lady Laura Bush sponsored another Virginia-class attack sub, named the USS Texas, in 2004. In 1994, then-first lady Hillary Clinton sponsored the Los Angeles-class sub the USS Columbia. 

Obama's endorsement of the Illinois comes as the Navy has begun integrating women into its submarine crews. That move follows a larger push by the Pentagon to put more female soldiers on the front lines. 

The Pentagon announced in February that it was opening up 14,000 new positions, most in the Army, to women after a review of its policies on women in combat.

But the Defense Department kept in place a ban on women serving in units below the battalion level with primary combat roles and specialties like infantry or special-operations units.

But last Wednesday, two female soldiers filed federal suit against the Pentagon to officially end the Department's ban on women in combat. 

Command Sgt. Maj. Jane Baldwin and Col. Ellen Harding are suing to put an end to restrictions in combat positions “solely on the basis of sex.”

The women, who are both Army reservists, say their military careers have been hampered by the ban on women in combat, and are asking the court to rule it unconstitutional for violating their equal-protection rights under the Fifth Amendment.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, named Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Secretary John McHugh as defendants, among others.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mis-stated the crew of the USS Illinois would be all female. This story was updated at 10:52am to remove the error.