USS Constitution is the oldest ship in the US Navy. Nicknamed Old Ironsides for the way cannonballs bounced off of her southern live oak hull, Constitution is also the oldest ship of any type still afloat in the world today. Launched in 1797, she is one of the six original frigates commissioned by Congress in the Naval Act of 1794. On January 21, 2022, the historic ship made history again when a female officer took command.
During a ceremony on January 21, Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell relieved Cmdr. John Benda of command of Constitution. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro was in attendance, highlighting the significance of the event. Farrell became the ship’s 77th commanding officer and the first woman to serve as captain in the ship’s 224-year service. She noted the extreme honor of taking such a historic command. “I hope to strengthen the legacy of USS Constitution through preservation, promotion and protection by telling her story and connecting it to the rich heritage of the United States Navy and the warships serving in the fleet today,” Farrell told USS Constitution Public Affairs.
Farrell previously served as the Executive Officer aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG-69). She is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and the University of Arkansas. While she is the first female commander of Constitution, she is certainly not the first female crew member. In 1986, Rosemarie Lanam became the first female sailor to crew Constitution. The first female commissioned officer to serve aboard Constitution was Lt. Cmdr. Claire V. Bloom. She served as the ship’s Executive Officer beginning in 1996 and led the ship during the historic 1997 sail, the first time Constitution sailed under her own power since 1881. Today, women make up more than one-third of the 80-person crew.
In handing over command, Benda noted Farrell’s achievement. “This historic barrier is long overdue to be broken,” he said of Farrell’s command. “I cannot think of a better candidate to serve as USS Constitution’s first female commanding officer. I look forward to watching what she and the crew accomplish in the next few years.” While she remains on active duty with the Navy, Constitution‘s mission is to educate the public and preserve naval history. To that end, the ship partners with the USS Constitution Museum.
“The USS Constitution Museum is honored to welcome Commander Billie J. Farrell, 77th Commanding Officer of USS Constitution,” Museum President and CEO Anne Grimes Rand told USS Constitution Public Affairs. “This is an exciting time in Boston with a female mayor and a female captain for Old Ironsides.” Active-duty sailors provide free tours to the public aboard Constitution to preserve the ship’s legacy and teach people about her history. Old Ironsides served during the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. She remains undefeated in battle and destroyed or captured 33 enemy ships. This impressive legacy is carried on today under Cmdr. Farrell’s historic command.