As I’ve mentioned before here in the Margins, now and then a bit of history begins to track me down. A name, event, or idea piques my interest and suddenly I stumble across it everywhere. Or at least in the footnotes to books on tangentially related subjects.
Lately the “Hello Girls” of the first World War have been dogging my heels.
I had long known that the U.S. Navy had enlisted young women as yeomen in the war, with the idea that they would “free a man to fight”. (You’ve probably seen the posters.) I had no idea that the army “enlisted” female telephone operators to serve on the western front.*
The telephone transformed military communications in the first World War, just as the telegraph did in the Crimea War and the American Civil War. For the first time, commanders could be in instant communication with front line officers hundreds of miles away, connected by lightweight wire and the help of an operator.
General John Pershing soon realized that the operators were the weak point in the system. When the United States entered the war, the army’s Signal Corps had 55 officers and 1,570 enlisted men–most of whom were involved in maintaining telegraph cables.** Adding trained operators to the system wasn’t as simple as recruiting men from AT&T.*** Eighty percent of American telephone operators were women. If the army was going to use the telephone, they needed to recruit women.
Pershing placed a request with the US Department of War for one hundred uniformed female telephone operators who spoke fluent French.**** While upper level bureaucrats and military lawyers fussed over whether the women would be the army equivalent of “yeomen-ettes” or civilian contractors, more than 7600 trained women operators applied for the first hundred positions. (Just for the record, the original advertisement, sent out by a Lieutenant responding to Pershing’s request, called for women to serve overseas in the army.)
Called “Hello Girls” by the soldiers, they made army communications possible. Most worked behind the lines, but a few traveled with Pershing. Like the soldiers with whom they worked, they risked their lives. Unlike those soldiers, they had to fight to be recognized by their country when they returned. *Sigh*
If you’re interested in a more detailed account of the Hello Girls, I recommend Elizabeth Cobb’s The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.
*I put enlisted in quotations because there was a great deal of ambiguity about the relationship between the army and the women who worked for them as switchboard operators. Ambiguity that was not resolved until 1979, when they were finally recognized as World War I veterans–too late to do most of them any good.
**Armies always prepare to fight the last war.
***Though the army did just that. Fourteen Bell Battalions, staffed entirely by AT&T employees with their supervisors as officers, joined the Signal Corps. But they weren’t operators. Their job was installing and maintaining equipment alongside the advancing armies. No small task.
****In addition to being ham-handed at managing the switchboard, hastily trained enlisted men for the most part didn’t speak French, a liability when working with their counterparts in the French telephone system.