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Here's a woman girls can aspire to emulate

I know we should be beyond it and I know it shouldn't matter, but I couldn't help but experience a sense of surprise, joy and pride when I learned that the commander of all the naval ships off the African coast waiting to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips from the Somali pirates two weeks ago was a woman.

A black woman.

Rear Admiral Michelle Howard was aboard the USS Boxer, where Phillips was taken immediately after his rescue. Howard also heads the Combined Task Force 151, a multinational coalition of naval vessels charged to disrupt piracy off the Horn of Africa.

"This is one of most challenging situations I have encountered in my time in the Navy, and I've been in 27 years," she told a PBS reporter. "There's a translator onboard. We had the captain of the Bainbridge pretty much working as the hostage negotiator. And we were getting tremendous support from FBI folks back stateside."

She took command of the USS Boxer and of the Expeditionary Strike Group 2, which is the U.S. Navy's counter-piracy task force, on April 5, three days before the pirates attacked the American cargo ship Maersk Alabama and Phillips surrendered himself as hostage in exchange for the release of his crew.

Howard will relinquish CTF 151 duties to the Turkish Navy on May 3.

My surprise on learning a black woman had earned such a position of authority had nothing to do with whether women of any race have the ability to manage such a huge responsibility. My surprise and joy stemmed from knowing the history of the Navy in regards to women and from the racial history I've lived in this country.

Howard, one of four children of an Air Force master sergeant and his British wife, grew up in Aurora, Colo. According to a story that ran in The Orange County Register, Howard said she ran home crying one day after someone directed a racial epithet at her.

"My father picked me up and shook me, (saying): "You get used to this. You are going to have to deal with this. You stop that crying,'" she said in that interview.

Her parents encouraged her to read books about historic black leaders who had conquered challenges, including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr., who became the first African-American to command a ship in the Navy.

In a story that appeared in Ebony magazine in 1999, Howard said she first set her eyes on becoming a ship's captain when she was 12.

Howard told Ebony that she told her brother, then an enlisted man in the Navy, that she wanted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. At the time, however, it didn't accept women.

Howard said her mother told her, "If you still want to go when you're older and it is still closed, we'll sue the government. If we win, that's what's called setting a precedent.'"

By 1978, when Howard enrolled, the Academy was accepting its third class that included women.

"It's tremendous," Howard said. "This is it! This is all I've ever wanted to do."

Still though, her ascent has not been easy. She said there were "individuals who didn't want me at the command, or didn't want me in a particular position. And the issue either revolved around my gender or my race."

She considered leaving the Navy for a job as a civilian. Black women then, however, told her not to, that she had a much better chance for advancement in the Navy and that she could enjoy an equal pay scale with her male counterparts.

Obviously, those women were right.

"I'm really quite thrilled that the stars aligned to allow me to command a ship," Howard said recently. "You train your whole life to be in command. I am comfortable with responsibilities and figuring out how operations need to go. That's part of who I am."

Yes, we should be beyond holding up examples of female and black "firsts" in this country. Unfortunately, we are not. Race and sex still matter.

Because of that, young girls of all colors need to see a woman who has hurdled tremendous obstacles. Old women need to see it, too.

When our young girls come to us — as Howard did with her mother, saying she wanted to do something that had never been done — we old women need to let them know we will help them in any way possible. To do that, we need to believe that things can be changed.

Having a woman commanding a ship and a task force for the Navy, for this country, is proof that we can all use.

Politically correct or not, I'm going to tell you about the Michelle Howards of the world every time I find one.

And I'll do that until the finding of a Michelle Howard is no longer news.