Maybe one of the most ubiquitous pieces of ephemera in the last 150 years is the telephone, a background player in some of the most exciting moments in recent history. Invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, telephones originally could only connect to a closed circuit, within an office building or a hotel. Soon, however, anyone could talk to anyone, but only with the help of a switchboard operator, who were almost exclusively women. On this episode of Ephemeral, historian Elizabeth Cobbs tells the fascinating story of the Hello Girls, the first women soldiers in American history and the most essential switchboard operators of all time.
When the United States decided to enter World War I in 1917, it enlisted decorated general John Pershing to build up the army and join the Allies overseas. But when he arrived in France, it became apparent that there was a problem. “They cannot, doggone it, make a dang phone call,” Elizabeth says, because the operators in France spoke French, of course, and the Americans didn’t. They also found that men just weren’t as good at switchboard operating as women: “The army...found that it took the average infantryman 60 seconds to complete a call. It took the average woman 10 seconds, so in wartime, the difference between 60 seconds and 10 seconds is the difference between living or getting your head blown off.” Pershing knew exactly what to do. “In November of 1917, Pershing sends a memo back home and he says, ‘I have got to have women operators. Get them to France as soon as you can. Make sure they're in uniform, put them under command, and get them over here,’” Elizabeth recounts.
7,600 women volunteered, and eventually, over 200 trained operators, called “Hello Girls,” traveled to France to assist the war effort. Women also served as nurses and in the Navy, but the Hello Girls were special. “They have been vetted by the army,” Elizabeth points out, “because keep in mind, these people are going to be handling national secrets, literally, in their hands and through their headsets...in World War I almost all commands, retreat, fire, the actual business end of war, is handled by the telephone and through telephone operators.” The job was as crucial as it was stressful: “Once the battles start, they're working sometimes around the clock,” Elizabeth says. “There's bombs going off. There's artillery....The German guns got so close the windows would blow out. At one point, a group of men rush in and tell the women, ‘You've got to get out.’ The women say, ‘We will. As soon as you do.’”
But even though their work was indispensable to winning the war, even though they served in uniform, even though they swore oaths of loyalty just like the men, the women were not considered full soldiers by the army; on paper, they were claimed as “contract workers,” ineligible for medals, disability benefits, or honorable discharges. The Hello Girls went home to a country that not only didn’t fully recognize their service, but their humanity: the right to vote was still over a year away, partly because President Woodrow Wilson had been staunchly against suffrage. Elizabeth says, “One of the reasons why he's so reluctant to do so...has to do with race. Race is actually the uninvited guest to the party, as it is so often in American politics...the federal suffrage amendment for women...is worded that it will include all women, so this will mean African-American women can vote too.” But war service did change at least one mind: Wilson’s himself. He gave a speech saying, "We have made partners of the women in this war...shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”; asking how Bolshevik Russia and Germany and the UK can accept women’s enfranchisement, but not the greatest democracy in the world. “As he says in his speech to the U.S. Senate, “‘Are we going to be the last to learn the lesson?’” Elizabeth quotes. “‘We're going to have to resign the leadership of liberal minds around the world. We cannot do this thing that everybody else is doing. We cannot honor the citizenship of women.’"
Listen to “Switchboard” to learn more about the incredible Hello Girls: their bravery in battles abroad, but also their courage in the battles at home for the right to vote and the right to be recognized for their service to their country, on this episode of Ephemeral.
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