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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A better explanation is that the Navy failed to move on Graf earlier not in spite of her gender but because of it. Following the Tailhook scandal--in which Navy aviators assaulted dozens of women at a 1991 convention--the service rushed women to sea to show it was no longer locked in the Dark Ages. The service was under political pressure to diversify its leadership, and Graf was part of the answer: the first woman to command both a destroyer and a cruiser. Some veterans believe Graf needed more time to prepare for those commands. "I have some sympathy for her," says Nicole Waybright, a young female officer who served with Graf on the Wilbur Curtis. "The Navy felt under pressure to take a woman and put her on the best and most complicated tactical platform," Waybright says. "But she didn't have much experience on it." Some rookies could have stepped up to that challenge, she adds, but not Graf. "She was," Waybright says, "a terrible ship handler."

The Graf case is sure to make the lives of Navy recruiters more difficult. Shawn Smith is a retired Navy captain who--along with her husband, also a retired Navy captain--applauded their daughter's decision to join the Navy in 2007 after graduating from Notre Dame on a Navy ROTC scholarship. Erin Smith was "seriously considering" making the Navy a career, as her parents did, until she was assigned to the Cowpens. "Her experiences with Captain Graf definitely helped form her decision to do her time and leave the Navy," her mother says. "I was appalled that this happened, guilty--I think she went into the Navy because of us--and angry, because these kids did not deserve this kind of leadership."

Graf declined to be interviewed for this article. She is now headed for the Navy weapons lab at Dahlgren, Va., a bureaucratic backwater where she is virtually certain to face a follow-up hearing that could end her career--if she doesn't request retirement first.

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