World War I brought about tremendous social changes to the U.S., particularly in the area of Women’s Rights and Civil Rights. The great need for “manpower” forced the military and war industries to recruit women for jobs that would have been unthinkable just prior to the start of the war.
For some women, that change had already started with the widespread use of the telephone starting in the late 1800s. At first, young men were given the job of literally being the vital connection between telephone customers, however, as a group they soon proved unsatisfactory. Often bored and subject to the temptation to play pranks and harass their coworkers, young women replaced the young men. The term “operator” not coming into use yet, the women of the telephone exchanges, who were instructed to answer calls with “hello,” were called the “Hello Girls.”
In 1917, the United States entered World War I, which was already raging since 1914, it was soon determined that the American Army would need the Hello Girls to come along. Although over 7,000 women applied, only 223 were selected, and most of those were already experienced in the job. Soon, the volunteer female switchboard operators were sworn into the U.S. Army Signal Corps, given Army uniforms, and deployed to the numerous hastily constructed training camps across the U.S. Since the military hierarchy could not have their female switchboard operators being referred to as “hello girls”, they were designated the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.
As the burgeoning U.S. Army, overwhelmingly citizen-soldiers, deployed to France as the American Expeditionary Force, or AEF, they faced a nightmare of trying to stand up logistics, transportation, and communications for the largest U.S. military endeavor since the Civil War. On November 8, 1917, AEF commander, General John “Blackjack” Pershing, sent a cable to the Secretary of War requesting the deployment of as many female switchboard operators, especially those fluent in French, as possible.
As the AEF began to first enter British and French trenches, with their own artillery and other supporting activities, the “Hello girls” saw their first action. A series of Allied offensives enabled the AEF to move forward, requiring the female telephone operators to be able to move rapidly forward and start-up operations as well.
“Every order for an infantry advance, a barrage preparatory to the taking of a new objective, and, in fact, for every troop movement, came over the ‘fighting lines’, as we called them,” recalled one female operator.
In several instances, Hello Girls come under direct German artillery fire. Several were wounded and at least two were known to have died from Spanish Flu, which took numerous lives on both sides in the closing days of the war, and after.
Two days after the Armistice, which stopped the fighting on November 11, 1918, the chief signal officer for the First Army stated in his official report “a large part of the success of the communications of this Army is due to…a competent staff of women operators.” Thirty of the operators received special commendations, many signed personally by Pershing. Chief Operator Grace Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, one of the highest non-combat decorations awarded in the U.S. military, and usually reserved for the general officer level.
Several Hello Girls accompanied U.S. Army elements into Germany during the four years of post-war occupation by Allied forces. Several other Hello Girls also served as French interpreters and translators for the American contingent during the six-month-long Versailles Treaty negotiations in Paris that formally ended the war in June 1919.
The female telephone operators demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that women could perform at a high level in very stressful, highly flexible circumstances, very close to the front lines of battle. Their example, along with the female nurses, and volunteer “Donut Dollies” of the Salvation Army, helped set the stage for women to gain the right to vote in 1920 and find their own careers outside the traditional role of homemaking and child-rearing.
In a sad scenario that would often repeat itself both for World War I and World War II, especially for the women who risked their lives in the service of their country, the volunteers of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators were not granted veterans benefits after the war.
Finally, in 1977, some 60 years later, the “Hello Girls” rightfully received veterans status, benefits, and the right to wear the WWI Victory Medal. Of course, many of these women had passed away by this time, and in a 1979 ceremony, only 31 Hello Girls were on hand to receive their medals. There is a small display on the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit at the U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum at Fort Gordon, Ga.