Making History on History: USS Constitution Gets Its 1st Female Commander

Katie Lange

WASHINGTON: Back in 1998, high schooler Billie Farrell posed for a photo beside USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, while visiting Boston from her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky. She had no idea that one day she would become the first woman to command it.  

Farrell, now a Navy commander, took over the reins of the Constitution on Jan. 21. When the 2004 Naval Academy graduate was selected to command the historic ship, she found that old photo to be quite ironic. 

” the year that a woman first assumed command of a combatant ship in the Navy,” Farrell said, referring to Cmdr. Maureen A. Farren. “Women have been commanding ships for a long time now. I’m just fortunate enough that I’m the person that gets to be the first woman here to command this ship.”

As a surface warfare officer, Farrell has done tours of duty on the guided-missile cruisers USS Vella Gulf, USS San Jacinto and USS Vicksburg; she served as the executive officer on the latter. While the technological differences between those ships and Constitution are quite large, she said she believes the foundations are still the same. 

“Part of the reason Constitution was so successful her captains ran gun drills that made her very efficient, and she was able to get rounds out of the barrel faster than a lot of our adversaries at the time,” Farrell said. “Because of that, she was able to win. A lot of what we do in the Navy today with drilling and making sure we’re proficient — it all started on the decks of Constitution.”

Constitution has been operating since 1797 and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs were seen bouncing off the ship’s wooden hull. While the ship is no longer used for battle, its active-duty sailors give free tours to the public to promote the Navy’s history and maritime heritage and to highlight the need for a sustained naval presence.

Spotlighting Female Leadership

Farrell commands a crew of about 80 sailors. Half of them are on their first assignment out of boot camp, and more than a third of them are women. 

While Farrell thinks it’s not unusual to see female commanders these days – there are currently about 70,000 active-duty women serving in the Navy, 26 of whom are ship commanders — she said the visibility of her new role can help further put the spotlight on the normalcy of it.

“I was always the senior at my commands. I never worked for a woman captain … but just because I didn’t see it, I knew you could do it,” she said. “I think the nice piece here … is it makes everybody look a little bit wider and say that women are in command of ships and can do this.” 

Considering March is Women’s History Month, Farrell’s history-making role has brought her a lot of media attention. She was recently on “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show,” and her career was covered by Time Magazine. 

“It’s definitely been a whirlwind, but it’s been such a positive outpouring of support from across the country,” she said.

Constitution shuttered its planks to visitors twice during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s been back open for tours since spring of 2021. It began offering virtual tours, too.

“The nice thing with all the media attention is it’s reminded people that the ship is here and open,” Farrell said. “We’re doing the tours and highlighting those active-duty sailors serving onboard.”

Preserving the Past, Preparing for the Future

So, what’s a typical tour of duty like for a Constitution sailor? Sometimes it’s a throwback to the olden days, like when they do sail training — climbing the ship’s masts and rigs and unfurling the sails so they can cruise into Boston Harbor. But they continue their training for modern-day Navy needs, too.  

“I ask my sailors to be an 1812 sailor some days, but I also have to make sure they’re a 2022 sailor and ready to go do the mission the Navy asked of them,” Farrell said. 

Constitution sailors work closely with the USS Constitution Museum and the Naval History and Heritage Command on training materials that prepare its sailors to pass the ship’s history on to the public. 

“They actually have to pass the board through the different ranks here, but we don’t dictate how they give their tours,” Farrell said. “Whatever piece of Constitution history they find interesting, we let them take that and run with … the story that they feel passionate about.” 

She said because of that, it’s likely that visitors who come more than once won’t get the same tour twice. 

“The fun part of the job is going to talk to people,” Farrell said, “and my sailors do a phenomenal job at giving the tours.” 

Celebrating 225 Years

This year, the crew plans to celebrate the ship, which will turn 225 in October, with several events that highlight Constitution’s history and accomplishments. There are seven public cruises set for this summer, including one on July 4th and one specifically for Vietnam veterans.

“We go about six miles in Boston Harbor. There’s a fort there. We exchange a 21-gun salute. Sometimes we get a flyover if we’re fortunate enough,” Farrell said. “The sailors climb and talk to guests and just enjoy being underway on the ship.”

Farrell’s time at the helm of the Constitution is just beginning, and she said she couldn’t have gotten there without help.

“I was blessed with great mentors. Having positive people that want you to do well and push you and help you find opportunities is extra important,” she said, offering advice to others coming up in the service: “Look for those people and surround yourself with those people.”

The Constitution is maintained by its crew, as well as members of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Naval Support Activity Crane near Bloomington, Indiana, has a grove of white oak trees that it preserves to use for repairs that might be necessary for the ship.