Lives of Public Leadership and Influence: A Conversation with Elsie Hillman

Elsie Hillman spent an evening discussing her remarkable life, and it didn’t take long to have her explain the secret of her success.

“I’m really sort of a bridge between people,” says the woman who was instrumental in turning out the vote for Republican presidential candidates from Dwight Eisenhower to George Herbert Walker Bush because she was able to bring together coalitions of labor, women, and traditional Republicans. “I still have contacts in Washington. I can call someone up and have them take my call. I can be a liaison or ambassador between what somebody needs and somebody else can give them.”

These were just a few of the ideas expressed during a conversation between Hillman and Ellie Wymard, PhD, director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Carlow, on February 19, 2013, in Kresge Theatre. Wymard’s questions provided a framework for the evening, but Hillman seemed quite comfortable talking about her life, and casually dropping names of politicos like U.S. Senator Hugh Scott, Pennsylvania Governor Bill Scranton, U.S. Senator “Johnny” Heinz, and even heavyweight boxer Billy Conn.

“I believe the issues—not the politics—have always been attractive to me,” she says. “I guess I thought I could always make a difference.”

Making a difference in Pennsylvania politics in the 1950s was not easy for a woman—even one who had married Henry Hillman, the heir to a steel and coke fortune who steered the family money into real estate and venture capital—and because of that Hillman often would mentor other women, like Barbara Hafer, who she felt could make a difference in politics. She also acknowledged that today’s political climate in the Republican party doesn’t make it easy for a woman—even one who considers herself a bridge builder.

“We’re out of date,” she says, indicating the Republican Party. “I can’t imagine myself joining that party today. Of course, I’m not sure the Democratic Party is pleasing all of the Democrats either.”

Throughout the evening, Hilman’s comments about the people she encountered and the politics she practiced over her life would bring a positive reaction from the audience, but, by far, the loudest cheers of the evening came when Hillman voiced the one factor that would improve the world today.

“I think we would be better off if more women were involved in politics.” By the sounds of things, no one at Carlow disagreed.

The conversation was part of the University’s Lives of Public Leadership and Influence speaker series sponsored by the Michele R. Atkins Endowed Chair for Ethics Across the Curriculum.

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