Lillie Elizabeth Drennan never had an easy life. She was given up for adoption when she was three weeks old. She was raised by foster parents. Lillie lost much of her hearing when she contracted scarlet fever. She dropped out of school in fifth grade and worked for a telephone company until her hearing impairment made that the job difficult. She married when she was fifteen years old. She gave birth to a son and was a single, divorced mother by the age of 17. She was married and divorced two more times.
Lillie and her second husband, Ernest Drennan, divorced in 1929 and Lillie took over the trucking business she and Earnest had started. It was called the Drennen Truck Line and based in Hempsted, Texas. That same year, the Railroad Commission granted her a commercial truck driver’s license (CDL). They were reluctant to grant her the CDL because of her hearing impairment, but she demanded they look at her driving record and won her right to drive a commercial vehicle.
Although Lillie was a pioneer and paved the way for the next generation of female professional drivers, after 85 years there are still very few women who have followed her into the seat of a tractor-trailer. Today there are fewer than 200,000 women who are professional drivers.
When Lillie drove her first open cab Model T Ford, the job was physically demanding. In addition to general freight, she hauled oilfield equipment and explosives, sometimes for 48 hours at a stretch.
Today’s cabs are more comfortable and ergonomic and the driver doesn’t always handle the freight. No one drives for 48 hours at a time these days and carriers are looking at the driver more as a partner than a means for capacity.
The Salute to Women Behind the Wheel hosted by the Women In Trucking Association was created to honor the female professional drivers who are today’s Lillie Drennan. These women are still a minority and are often viewed as less capable than their male counterparts.
Each March, during the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky, Women In Trucking Association plans a celebration. In addition to bringing in some pretty impressive speakers, such as Anne Ferro (FMCSA), Deborah Hersman (NTSB), and this year, Rebecca Brewster (ATRI), the drivers and their families are treated to music and refreshments. The participants look forward to dipping fruit and snacks into the chocolate fountains. And this year, the 5th anniversary of the Salute, they enjoyed a cake in the shape of a truck.
Sponsors provide the funds to host this event and offer lots of great gifts in the goodie bags each female CDL holder receives. From coffee mugs to insulated coolers, water bottles, and many more gifts geared toward the professional driver’s needs. Exhibitors are on hand to attract the attendees to their companies and products.
Any member of Women In Trucking is invited to attend the Salute to Women Behind the Wheel each year, but only female CDL holders are given the gifts and honored for their service. Each woman wears a red “Salute” t-shirt and a group photo is taken at the end of the celebration.
It’s our way of thanking the women who share the road with men as they deliver our nation’s freight. Although it’s been many years since Lillie Drennan obtained her CDL, it will be many more years before a woman behind the wheel is a common sight.
That’s Women In Trucking’s mission, to encourage the employment of women in the industry, to address obstacles that might keep women from entering (or staying) in this industry and finally, to celebrate their success! That’s the reason for the Salute to the Women Behind the Wheel event in March at the Mid-America Trucking Show.
If you haven’t seen hundreds of women in their red t-shirts being honored for their service to the trucking industry, please join us when we celebrate at the Salute to Women Behind the Wheel next year!