Hillin presents Distinguished Faculty Lecture on rhetoric of female aviators

hillinSara Hillin presented the Distinguished Faculty Lecture, Tuesday, in the University Theatre. The lecture focused on the history of women in aviation and the rhetoric of female pilots in the 20th century.

Hillin began her lecture by referencing Aristotle who said that rhetoric was “observing the available means of persuasion.”

“Each of the women (in this lecture) was a successful rhetorician in addition to an accomplished pilot,” she said.

Hillin also discussed how the different types of historical memory, public and collective, affect the way female aviators have been remembered. She said that collective memory, the type of historical memory that is constructed by entire groups, has led to the emphasis on Amelia Earhart in the history of women in aviation, while public memory is much more inclusive.

“Public memory is what allows us to widen our scope,” she said.

Hillin talked about Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license and who, from 1911 to 1912, wrote 10 articles for Frank Leslie’s Weekly on aviation.

“Harriet Quimby already had a very nicely carved-out rhetorical space as a fashion and theater editor for a major publication,” Hillin said. “Having Harriet Quimby as Leslie’s journalistic authority on all things flight-related was really a momentous event, not only for women as aviators but also for women as writers.

“Women’s professional writing, even into the 20th century, was neatly packaged into things like gossip columns and columns where they would talk about mastering your role in the private sphere, mastering your domestic roles.”

Hillin said Quimby wrote about all transportation technology, and said one quote about the car applied to flying as well — “The automobile has opened up an almost entirely new world for the woman.”

Quimby also talked a lot in her articles about crashes and mishaps, Hillin said.

“She would try to figure out how they happened,” Hillin said. “She felt very strongly that we shouldn’t just continue to feel like, ‘Oh, it was mysterious, it was the wind, or it’s the weather that caused a crash.’”

Hillin also briefly mentioned Mary Alexander, who was involved in the early years of the 99s, an organization for women in aviation.

“In a piece, ‘Why Are Women Afraid to Fly?’, (Alexander) takes on the assumption that women’s temperaments might make them less suitable pilots,” Hillin said. “This is one of my favorite quotes from her, ‘We hear much of women’s nerves. They may be different in some ways, but it seems to me that, given a similar education, those differences would tend to disappear. A woman can sew, watch two or three things on the stove, keep an eye on three or four children, and remain unperturbed. Half an hour in a similar situation for a man completely shatters his nervous system.’”

Hillin talked about Bessie Coleman and Willa Beatrice Brown, whose experiences were not only shaped by their gender, but by the fact that both were African-American.

“Flying gave women opportunities to show technological skills,” she said, adding that Coleman in particular saw aviation as “a means for African-Americans to involve themselves in the military and technology.”

Willa Beatrice Brown was the first African-American woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license in America and was also a proponent of racial uplift, the idea that, given similar opportunities and resources, African-Americans could be just as successful as their white counterparts.

Hillin also talked about Thea Rasche, a German female pilot whose work was subjected to censorship under the Nazi regime who had written several books about early American aviation pioneers, only to have her ability curtailed by the Third Reich, partly as a result of the positive views her work espoused regarding pilots in the United States, at that time Germany’s enemy.

Hillin concluded her lecture with a discussion of Jerrie Cobb, who wanted to be an astronaut but was never permitted to go into space.

“She has the distinction of being the American woman most qualified to go into space who never did,” Hillin said.

Cobb passed a grueling qualifying test for entrance into the space program in 1959, only to face disdain from the NASA officials in charge of deciding who would go on the mission. Nevertheless, Hillin said, Cobb campaigned aggressively for women to be allowed to become astronauts.

“Cobb relied on hard evidence, such as the test results, rather than emotional appeal,” Hillin said.

The legacy of the pilots in her lecture can be felt in aviation to this day, Hillin said.

“There’s a direct line from these women’s rhetorical efforts and women in today’s aviation,” she said.

Story by Cailtin McAlister, UP editor 

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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