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The first woman nominated to run the Navy held up over abortion protest

Vice CNO Adm. Lisa Franchetti on board the USS John C. Stennis as part of a visit to Navy facilities in Hampton Roads. May 23, 2023 (Department of Defense)
Vice CNO Adm. Lisa Franchetti on board the USS John C. Stennis as part of a visit to Navy facilities in Hampton Roads. May 23, 2023 (Department of Defense)

A protest over abortion policy within the military, led by one senator, is holding up hundreds of military confirmations.

One of them is Admiral Lisa Franchetti, who is set to become the first woman to head the Navy. 

Retired Vice Admiral Nora Tyson was Adm. Lisa Franchetti’s commanding officer in 2016. Both are part of a first generation of women who were able to rise through the ranks, after the Navy allowed women to begin serving on board combat vessels. Before 1993, it would be nearly impossible for a woman to gain the experience to be considered for the Navy’s top jobs. 

 “I think we both would say we were very fortunate in our timing," Tyson said. "I had no doubt that she had the potential and she could end up in this job or any other job that the Navy asked her to do.” 

Franchetti is nominated by the Biden administration to be the Chief of Naval Operations, or CNO. It would also make her the first woman to serve as a permanent member of the joint chiefs of staff.

The President overruled the choice of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and some critics pounced on the divide, saying Franchetti was only getting the top job because she was a woman.

Tyson said knows each of the top candidates and they are all highly qualified, but Franchetti brings a certain skill set.  

“There are going to be naysayers that, 'What are we doing? Putting a woman in that position' ..and you just want to say, stop, just stop,” Tyson said. “You know, she's either qualified or she isn't. And I think she's one of the most qualified people that we could put in that position.”

Tyson lived in Williamsburg for a number of years when she was still on active duty. She was the first woman to run a fleet. She got to know Franchetti whenTyson was head of Third Fleet, which was based in San Diego at the time.

Franchetti was one of her aircraft carrier strike group commanders, which included responsibility over several ships and aircraft and thousands of  sailors and naval aviators. Tyson asked Franchetti to take command of a second strike group for several months. 

“She said, ‘I got it.’ And she took it on,” Tyson said. “And she did a superb job. And she was just who I knew she was a leader that I could turn to and she would give me all she had.”

Franchetti graduated with a journalism degree from Northwestern. Over a nearly 40 year career, she was commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Korea and 6th Fleet in Europe before eventually  taking over as vice CNO, the number two job in the Navy.

She talked about being a consensus builder during a Q&A session last year as she wrapped up her tenure running the influential policy office for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

“I think that's the one thing that I've really enjoyed, is being able to have candid conversations,” Franchetti said responding to a question from a junior officer in a filled lecture hall in Washington. “We may think one thing and they think a different thing. OK. Is there a middle ground? You know, what is the best recommendation?”

Leadership of the Navy is complex and sprawling and comes with huge logistical demands. Retired CNO Adm. John Richardson thinks Franchetti is the right choice – he recalls watching her tirelessly work a military gathering in Washington DC. 

“She went to this event and really stayed there until she had basically had a chance to talk to everybody who was in the room,” Richardson said. “You know, I think that that's just really characteristic of what Admiral Franchetti stands for as a leader.”

"We don't yet have the endgame on this”

The CNO handles everything from how the Navy will work with NATO on Ukraine to countering the rise of China; to recruiting new sailors and tackling maintenance delays hampering the fleet, Rirchardson said. 

Franchetti’s confirmation is being held up over an unrelated protest of the Pentagon’s policy on abortion.

The military pays for women to travel to states where those services are legal.  An individual senator can place a hold on any nomination and Sen. Tommy Tuberville has placed a hold on all senate confirmed nominations to the military.

His office said in an emailed statement that the hold will remain in place until either the Pentagon drops the policy or the president signs a law codifying the policy.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, member of the Senate Armed Services committee, said Franchetti is one of roughly 300 top leaders waiting for a vote. Kaine said the Republican from Alabama declined an offer by Democratic leadership to call the issue to a vote in the Senate. 

“If this was really a matter of principle and conviction for him, you would think he would have wanted to stand on the floor and offer it as a vote,” Kaine said. “So we don't yet have the endgame on this.”

In the meantime, Franchetti will take over as acting CNO when current CNO Michael Gilday steps down this week. It means the Navy will join the Marines and the Army as the third branch to be run by a person in an acting capacity. 

Bryan Clark, senior analyst with the Hudson Institute, said the problem for leaders like Franchetti is they can’t really put their own stamp on the job and institute their own policies when they’re not confirmed.

“None of those changes are going to really be implemented until you get new leaders in place, because the current leaders are all acting and they're going to feel like they're not empowered to move beyond what their predecessor did,” Clark said. 

He added that it makes Franchetti’s historic appointment just that much more challenging. 

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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