Last July, Michelle Howard, the daughter of an Air Force veteran, earned a fourth star and a promotion to vice chief of naval operations. This accomplishment capped a career of “firsts,” with Howard trailblazing where no African-American woman and, in some cases, no woman had succeeded before. As the 38th vice chief of naval operations, Howard is the Navy’s second highest-ranking officer and the highest-ranking woman in Navy history.
Since Howard first took command of a ship, civilians and military personnel alike have seen her as a role model, holding her up as an example of successful leadership from a female officer. Undoubtedly, she represents the highest standard of women in uniform.
We tend to celebrate officers who reach the top ranks of the military, understandably so. Perhaps the Yale community should take a moment to recognize the empowered women in uniform all around us, who serve and have served honorably while a part of this campus community.
Yale’s Air Force and Naval ROTC programs left campus in 1972 after Vietnam-era disagreements between the Department of Defense and the Yale administration. The programs returned to Yale in August 2012, yet the role of female midshipmen and cadets in that return has largely gone unrecognized. Women were excluded from Yale College admissions until 1969 and from equal opportunities for military service until the 1970s, but in 2012, they were finally able to join an on-campus officer training program while enrolled at Yale.
To be fair, a female Yale undergraduate could have maintained an Air Force or Army ROTC scholarship through cross-town relationships with the University of Connecticut or the University of New Haven. But relatively few Yale students have become officers in the Air Force or Army through these programs, revealing the difficulty of the process.
There is a growing community of women in uniform on campus, both ROTC students in Yale College and officers within the graduate and professional schools. In this community I see a chance for Yale to recognize and celebrate a group of female leaders that we don’t spend enough time talking about. We have programs on campus that encourage women to enter politics, finance and engineering. In lieu of creating another program to encourage military careers, we should consider the gendered expectations of uniformed service, of expected masculinity and suppressed femininity.
I don’t want to speak for the women who balance these stereotypes with life at Yale, but I’m of the opinion that the only way we’ll change expectations and create positive societal perceptions of women in uniform is by recognizing the ones who serve with dignity on this campus. They deal with doubts about their abilities to contribute, their physical features, their personalities. And these stereotypes are perpetuated by men and women alike.
With revelations about the prevalence of sexual assault in both the U.S. military and on American college campuses, there’s a need to promote positive images of women in our communities. Yale hasn’t gone untouched by these issues, as evidenced by the campus-wide emails from Yale Police Department Chief Ronnell Higgins. While the events described in those emails don’t speak for the University as a whole, they do show room for improvement. The women in uniform on Yale’s campus stand at the intersection of these two institutions.
One goal of bringing back ROTC to campus after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was to show publicly that the nation’s future civilian leaders could be educated alongside future military leaders. We would be lost in fulfilling that commitment, in achieving that goal, if we failed to shift away from ideas of men in uniform to a broader conception of uniformed service. Our military attempts to do this every day. We begin by changing perceptions and rolling back stereotypes.
Josh Clapper is a junior in Davenport College and a midshipman in the Yale NROTC Unit. This column expresses his personal views only and not the views of Yale NROTC, the Department of Defense or any other entity. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .