Sexism and the Navy's Female Captain Bligh

Captain Holly Graf, the first woman to command a Navy cruiser, rose fast through the ranks — until reports of her abusive command style caught up with her. The inside story of her stunning fall

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Illustration by John Ritter for TIME; Graf: U.S. Navy / AP; Ship: AP

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On June 1, 2007, 22 years after leaving Annapolis, Graf was promoted to captain. Her assumption of command of the U.S.S. Cowpens in March 2008 was a second special day for her and for women in the Navy. The 567-ft., 10,000-ton vessel is the Navy's largest surface combatant, and Graf was the first--and is so far the only--woman to command this class of ship, with its 400-member crew. Driving a boxy cruiser requires ship-handling skills more deft than those needed to skipper a sleek destroyer or a frigate. But commanding the crew proved to be a far greater challenge for her.

A six-month Navy investigation found that Graf assaulted members of her crew and pressured junior officers to do her improper favors. She grabbed them to get their attention--usually while in a heated discussion. She asked junior officers to play piano at her personal Christmas party and to walk her dogs. Then there were the things she failed to do, like train her crew adequately. This charge seemed to generate the most anger among young officers, who must make the most of their time at sea--and pass critical tests--if they are going to win promotion. "I don't have time to train junior officers," she allegedly told a fellow officer, even though the probe concluded that it should have been one of her "highest priorities." At times, she seemed to prefer humiliation as a teacher. The probe discovered that she put a "well-respected Master Chief" in "time out"--standing in the ship's key control room doing nothing--"in front of other watch standers of all ranks," which enraged Navy personnel.

Most damaging, perhaps, was Graf's habit of verbal abuse. The language of naval command is supposed to be crisp and to the point. Orders pertaining to speed, direction and a host of other decisions needed to guide a warship are repeated back and forth among those on the bridge to reduce the chance of error. There's remarkably little conversation on the bridge at most times; swearing is extremely rare. (Belowdecks, among enlisted personnel, it is more common.) But according to 29 of 36 members of the cruiser's crew questioned by Navy investigators--whose names were redacted from the report and who therefore could not be contacted by Time--Graf repeatedly dropped F bombs on them. "Take your goddam attitude and shove it up your f___ing ass and leave it there," she allegedly told an officer during a stressful maneuver at sea.

Graf could be particularly withering toward females. One younger woman recalled going to Graf to seek her help. "Don't come to me with your problems," she said Graf responded. "You're a f___ing department head." The officer said Graf once told her, "I can't express how mad you make me without getting violent." A second female officer told investigators that Graf was "a terrible role model for women in the Navy," recalling what Graf allegedly said to her and a fellow officer on the bridge: "You two are f___ing unbelievable. I would fire you if I could, but I can't."

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