This interview is part of our latest special report on women and leadership, which highlights the women who are making significant contributions to the great stories unfolding in the world today. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Cmdt. Billie J. Farrell, 39, is the first female commanding officer of the USS Constitution, a 224-year-old warship nicknamed Old Ironsides and the oldest commissioned warship in the US Navy. The ship is based in Boston, where Cmdr. Farrell lives with her husband, Paul Farrell, also in the Navy, and their two children, ages 6 and 3.
You are one of a rare circle of women in the Navy to command a ship. What does it do?
It’s not as rare as people think. I know many women, including close friends, who are in command or second in command positions all over the world. The first female Navy to command a combat ship, Cmdr. Maureen Farren, took on the role in 1998, and more and more have joined the ranks since.
You’ve been in the Navy for 18 years. What was your inspiration to join?
I was watching television at my home in Paducah, Kentucky when I was in sixth grade and saw a diploma from the Naval Academy. I became fascinated with the tradition and the ceremony and started looking to join. I saw this as an opportunity for a great education and a chance to serve my country. After finishing my senior year of high school, I headed to Annapolis for my first six weeks of training.
Describe your first visit to Constitution, when you were in high school. There’s a nice picture of you in front of the boat. What do you remember from this visit and how did you feel?
My family took a road trip from Kentucky to Boston when I was 16. But first we stopped in Annapolis so I could see the Naval Academy. At that moment, I knew I wanted to join. Then we continued onto Boston and visited the ship. At that time I could take a ride and talk to the crew. I had purchased a hat from the US Naval Academy and wore it for this photo. Standing on deck, I experienced history and realized that the ship is a battlefield and a place where sailors gave their lives to serve the country.
How important do you think mentoring has been in your career?
I was fortunate that all the captains of the ships I served on took me under their wings and taught me lessons that I carry with me today. But those lessons were by actions, not words. The most important thing I’ve learned is that bad news doesn’t get better over time. If you know something, say something so the situation can be helped or resolved in the best possible way. The other big lesson is to keep calm. If you’re reactive, people won’t feel comfortable coming to you.
What is your favorite story from the history of the Constitution?
The battle with HMS Guerriere, a British ship, during the War of 1812. This is where the ship earned the nickname Old Ironsides. When the sailors saw British cannonballs bouncing off the sides of the Constitution, they shouted “Huzzah, her sides are iron”. In fact, they are made of wood, but the story speaks of its resilience as well as the resilience of the sailors who fought during this battle.
Given that there are so many women serving in the Navy – about a third of your crew are female – how important do you think your appointment is? Does being “the first” still count?
My appointment is important because it gives me the platform to support the 70,000 women who serve in the Navy today and show them what is possible. And, yes, being the first account. It’s great to highlight accomplishments so they can inspire others to set goals beyond what they thought were possible.
Can you describe your daily tasks?
The Constitution is still an active sailboat that enters Boston Harbor seven times a year. This means that my crew of 80 is made up of active duty sailors.
Also, we are not a museum, but we offer guided tours, so we study the history and heritage of the Navy a lot. We also run many community outreach programs. For example, scout troops will spend nights on the ship and get a taste of our lives.
There were women pioneers on the Constitution since 1986. Have you been in contact with them?
In 1986, Rosemarie Lanam was the first woman to serve on the ship, and when I took command she sent me the warmest message. Claire V. Bloom (appointed in 1996) was the first officer of the ship, and she came to the ceremony when I was officially appointed. We met briefly and she told me she was so excited for me. I could feel his support.
Can you share your future ambitions?
The 225th anniversary of the USS Constitution is October 21, and I’m focusing on that celebration. I really want it to be a big event.