Hillin to deliver Distinguished Faculty Lecture, Oct. 3

Sarah Hillin, Lamar professor, sits in her office in the Maes building, Sept. 25. Hillin is this year's Distingushed Faculty Lecturer.

Sarah Hillin, Lamar professor, sits in her office in the Maes building, Sept. 25. Hillin is this year’s Distingushed Faculty Lecturer.

Sara Hillin will present this year’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture, “Flashpoints of Flight: The Enduring Rhetorical Legacy of Female Aviators.” The lecture discusses the legacy of female pilots in the early 20th century.

The idea came from a 2007 visit to the 99s Museum of Women Pilots, a museum dedicated to the history of female pilots operated by an organization for women in aviation.

“They have a lot of archival documents, letters and photographs left by women, mostly 20th century women pilots,” Hillin, associate professor of English, said. “I started getting interested in it because I was curious about what their experiences were like in what became a more male-dominated field over time.”

Hillin, who will present her lecture Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the University Theatre, said the museum visit led to her interest in the writings of female aviators.

“I started with questions about Amelia Earhart, because she’s the most obvious media darling,” she said. “Everybody tends to think of Earhart when they think of famous female pilots. Then I started learning more about other women, and so I broadened my scope to include people like Bessie Coleman and Willa Beatrice Brown, both African American women pilots, and their experiences, and I just got really interested on the effect that their rhetoric had on the public’s under- standing of aviation and women’s roles in it.

“I was already working on a book about this, but it’s something I’ve been interested in for about 10 years. In terms of the general timeline, I start with Harriet Quimby in about 1911 and then I go up to the early 1960s with Jerrie Cobb, who had hoped to be the first woman astronaut in the U.S. but was not able to realize that dream.”

Hillin said that the field of aviation became male-dominated over time because of the increasing association between planes and warfare.

“When Harriet Quimby got her license in 1911, you didn’t have the strong connection between aviation and the military that you would have later on, and so, in its beginnings, the field was a lot more open to women being involved in it,” she said. “In the coming decades, when planes were becoming fashioned to be used in war, that’s kind of what pushed it in that direction, because you had fewer women who had easy access to roles in military aviation.”

However, there were a few women who were able to enter the field of military aviation, Hillin said.

“Willa Beatrice Brown was in the Civil Air Patrol, and she actually ended up training a lot of the male pilots who would become Tuskegee Airmen later on,” she said.

In addition to gender, race also played a role in female pilots’ experiences.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman

“Bessie Coleman had to leave the country to find a flight instructor who was willing to train an African American woman to fly,” Hillin said. “She actually got an international pilots’ license, which even Amelia Earhart didn’t have (at that time), so she became known as a stunt pilot. That’s how she earned money.”

Coleman also promoted careers in flight for African Americans. She would give barn-storming performances and would get huge crowds that would come to see her. Her driving force was that she wanted African Americans to become involved in aviation. That was in the early 1920s. Coleman is an example of how women pilots’ legacies have been enduring, Hillin said.

“There is still a Bessie Coleman aerospace organization that is dedicated to promoting flight opportunities for African Americans,” Hillin said. “Immediately after her death, there were articles in the ‘Chicago Defender’ saying that we have to keep her dream alive. She sort of embodies the idea that black pilots should have equal opportunities and aviation should be open to everybody regardless of race.”

Another pilot, Jerrie Cobb, helped open up opportunities for women in NASA.

“For someone like Jerrie Cobb, even though she never made it to space, the arguments that she made were very effective in convincing those in the government that women were perfectly suitable candidates for becoming astronauts,” Hillin said. “You see that in the fact that we do have women astronauts, and not long after she was making those arguments that started to happen.”

Willa Beatrice Brown

Willa Beatrice Brown

Hillin said that she wants her lecture to generate interest about the history of women in aviation.

“I feel like out of everything, out of all of my publications and all my research interests, this is the one where I probably have the most knowledge, and the most interest value for the general community as well,” she said.

Hillin said there’s only so much she can do on her own and hopes to inspire others to add to the research, especially women pilots in other countries.

“I can only study so many women, and I think what I have is interesting, but I also kind of like to think of this lecture as maybe starting a conversation,” she said. “There’s curiosity about the international community of women pilots, and I don’t really get to touch on that as much as I’d like to. I like to sort of pique people’s interest about it.

“If students are looking for research topics or something like that, consider experiences of women pilots in China or something like that, things that I won’t have time to touch on here.”

Story by Caitlin McAlsiter, UP editor

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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