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Meet the Four Highest-Ranking Women in the U.S. Military

CBS’s Norah O’Donnell spoke with them about their experiences

Watch: Four-Star Female Generals and Admirals Reflect on Their Achievements and Challenges

In their first joint interview, the top-ranking women from each branch of the U.S. military shared how they overcame adversity to reach the highest levels of the armed forces.

Norah O’Donnell, anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News, brought the leaders together for the first time. “Each of them told similar stories: that they just put their head down, they worked even harder and sought the support of colleagues who told them, ‘You absolutely do belong here, and I’m going to support you,’ ” said O’Donnell, who hosts the online streaming series Person to Person with Norah O'Donnell.

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Trailblazers in service

The four women are:

  • Adm. Linda Fagan, Coast Guard commandant
  • Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of U.S. Transportation Command (Air Force)
  • Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command (Army)
  • Adm. Lisa Franchetti, vice chief of Naval Operations (Navy)

Only 10 women have held the highest rank in their military branches. Women were prevented from serving full-time in the military until the passing of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, which initially limited their participation to 2 percent of all personnel. Restrictions remained on women’s military service for more than 60 years until 2015, when the Pentagon lifted the ban on women serving in combat.

“There were so many women who were barred from serving in senior positions because of the law, a law that discriminates,” O’Donnell said. “The reason that there are so few women in leadership in the military is because leadership roles in the military require combat experience.”

O’Donnell described the women as possessing a “quiet persistence and a dedication to selfless sacrifice” due to the 30-plus years they spent moving up the ranks.

“The opportunity was created by law changes and otherwise for us to be here as a four-star,” Fagan said during the interview. “Yes, there’s been some difficult people along the way, but they’re not sitting here in these chairs right now.”

The women expressed hope that younger female service members can rise to the highest levels of the armed forces and move beyond being among “the first” by normalizing women’s leadership.

All four women are mothers and hold many “firsts.”

  • Fagan is the country’s first service chief and the only woman to sit in with the Joints Chiefs of Staff.
  • Richardson led an assault helicopter battalion in Iraq. 

“Where else in the military can you be a helicopter pilot, work at the White House, work at the United States Capitol, work at the Pentagon and lead American sons and daughters in combat,” Richardson said.

  • Franchetti commanded a carrier strike group and is the number two officer in the Navy. Many people expect she’ll hold the top job for the Navy at the Pentagon. 
  • Van Ovost got her pilot’s license before her driver’s license as a teenager. But she wasn’t able to fly in combat until 1993 when the Pentagon allowed women to fly fighter jets. She can fly 30 aircraft.
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“That calm, steady leadership is exactly what you want when you’re talking about military issues,” O’Donnell said. “I hope what viewers take away is that even if people throw roadblocks in your way — and they will, no matter who you are, people will tell you you don’t belong or that you’re not good at a certain thing — what at the end of the day matters is what you believe you’re possible of doing.”

The full interview will air at 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday, March 16 on the CBS News Streaming Network and at Person to Person with Norah O'Donnell.

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