Story at a glance

  • For the first time in U.S. Navy history, four women of color are commanding warships at the same time.
  • Women were not allowed to serve on board combatant vessels until 1994.
  • In an interview with NBC, the women spoke about the importance of female role models.

It wasn’t that LaDonna Simpson didn’t think she could command a United States Navy warship, or anyone else for that matter. But not many other women of color had done it before. 

“The Navy has been very supportive of my journey and my professional training. There weren’t any voices in the Navy that said that I could not achieve this goal,” Simpson, commander of the USS Carter Hall, told NBC in a recent interview. “The only limitation was the fact that women as a whole hadn’t been on board combatant vessels until, I believe, it was 1994.”  


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Now, she’s one of four women of color commanding war ships, a first in U.S. naval history. It was March 7, 1994, when the Navy issued the first orders for women to be assigned aboard a combatant ship, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Five years later, now-retired Admiral Michelle Howard became the first Black woman to command a ship in the Navy, the USS Rushmore. 

"I am so proud to see all these wonderful leaders who are breaking down barriers. I know that my niece will be able to see women who look like her and be able to imagine all the things she may want to do with her life," said Kristel O’Cañas, commander of the USS Whidbey Island, in a release from the Navy

About 21 percent of the more than 11,000 Surface Warfare Officers serving on active duty are women now, according to the Navy. After the Navy SEALs opened their ranks to women in 2015, the last historically male-only force to do so, the branch provoked the ire of President Trump by revising the language of its ethos and creed to be more gender neutral. But the United States armed forces are not always friendly to women, as evidenced in a recent report that Ronnie J. Booth, the former auditor general of the Navy, sexually harassed women. 


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“I may not have felt comfortable asking my male boss,” Kimberly Jones, commander of the USS Tortuga, told NBC about her experience in the Navy. “Now, to their credit, they were phenomenal leaders. However, when it came time [for] some of those more intimate conversations on how to plan your career with a family, as a mom, that did not exist.”  

Now, however, these four women have forged their own bonds — Kathryn Wijnaldum, commander of the USS Oak Hill, even became godmother to Simpson's two children — and hope to set an example for the next generation of women in the Navy. 

“I believe we continue to serve and remain transparent about our journeys because we understand that by communicating how we overcame personal challenges while balancing the demands of active duty service, women who come behind us are encouraged to do the same,” said Wijnaldum in the release. “Unlike when we started our Navy journey, we are showing female officers and enlisted Sailors that they can do it too.”  


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Published on Apr 02, 2021