The Great War was a conflict that included many advances, and not just that of technological. This war brought about social changes, economic, political and military. Women’s involvement in the war, from the Yeomanettes of the American Navy to the Women’s Auxiliary Corps of Britain, gave the ability to show competence in time of war. Women stepped up in many ways both on the Homefront and overseas. The Women Telegraph Operators, who worked alongside the US Army Corps, was one of the biggest steps for women’s rights in the early 20th century. The “Hello Girls,” as they were coined, served the military with commendable service and struggled with their own war with congress until 1979.
Americans entered the war fashionably late in April of 1917. The signal corps was excited to lay out the new technology since their last conflict, the Spanish-American War. Telephones were a new and upcoming way of communication. It was easier to spread the word, and faster, than the use of semaphore flags, and more reliable than pigeons. Training men to do a job that required multitasking, both French and English, and calmness under pressure proved to be harder than thought, therefore it fell onto women to fill the role. John J. Pershing (September 13, 1860 – July 15, 1948), the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, released an order to employ women telephone operators in 1917. “On account of the great difficulty of obtaining properly qualified men, request organization and dispatch to France force of Woman telephone operators all speaking French and English equally well” was what his order read.  Women needed to speak fluent French and English and be trained in switchboard operation.  At first, finding such a niche group was complicated. Eventually, the needs relaxed, as the army realized that training women to run a switchboard was easier than training a second language. Women came out of the woodwork to sign up. 7,600 AT&T employees applied.  Throughout the war, the needs relaxed again to not require French speaking operators, as more and more American lines were laid. These girls were sworn in, told to purchase uniforms, unlike the men serving, with U.S. Military buttons and insignia, and report to training centers. Thus, began the “Hello Girls” journey.
The question of whether women could perform in times of war was a question that floated to the tops of many minds during the early twentieth century. In fact, it was one of the blocking points of why women could not get the vote passed in Congress. Why should women vote if they would not fight or aid in times of war? Nurses have been around for a long time, but they were feminine angels who could not perform at the front lines. Even the Navy bringing in the Yeomanettes, or Yeomen (F) were not allowed to go “over there.” John J. Pershing, or Black Jack, was a man who believed strongly in the equality of all people. He coined his nickname from his command of an all-black regiment in the 1890’s on the American Frontier. Pershing became a strong supporter of women, and made sure to mention the women, as well as the men, when applauding the efforts of the Signal Corps. 332 women joined the fight, 99 of which never made it across the sea. The Hello Girls were organized into six units. They ran and organized the switchboards across France from the spring until summer of 1918 until the end of the war and after. They used the AT&T typical answering script from the home front. The sound of home came through over the lines when the women worked. “Oftentimes…after saying ‘number please,’ there would be a silence, broken by an awed ‘Oh!’ Sometimes it would be, ‘Thank heaven you’re here at last.’  They spread their work across Seventy-Five AEF exchanges throughout France. Some of the women had to work with outdated French equipment, others with AT&T equipment boated over. These women even ran the switchboard at the front lines in Pershing’s headquarters. “The number of telephone calls handled daily by the thirty operators at Chaumont rose…from 40,000…to 75,000.”  This drastic change was from May to October of 1918. As more and more lines were laid by the US Signal Corps, the harder the women worked. These women handled around an average of 2,500 calls a day. Many of which connected calls for twelve hours straight on a regular basis. No matter the situation, they got the call through. They were shelled, and even had one instance where a fire broke out from German espionage. The thirteen operators who were running the lines in the barracks, refused to vacate. They were finally forced to leave, but only left for about an hour before men dragged the switchboards from the flames and set them up elsewhere. Pershing made sure to give the Hello Girls a commemorative booklet on Christmas Day 1918. “The officers, men and the young women of the Signal Corps have performed their duties with a large conception of the problem and with a devoted and patriotic spirit to which the perfection of our communications daily testify.”  The proof of women’s capabilities was now in print, in Perching’s handwriting.
The Hello Girls continued working the lines until even after the war in exchanges set up in Germany. It was after the war, that their war began. The women returned home to find out that congress had voted to reduce their status from military, to civilian while they were overseas. The women were not eligible for any military benefits. Instead, they were handed contract discharges, even though they had never received a contract from the Army. Bill after bill was submitted to congress, and every time it was rejected. The girls eventually found Edith Green, a congresswoman from Massachusetts who began to aid them on their fight. The same congresswoman who would back the formation of the Women’s Army Corps with full benefits of the Army in World War II. The fight raged on. Many of the women gave up or passed away as the years went by. Constant rejections from congress, stating that they would have to give every volunteer who went overseas benefits, such as groups like the Knights of Columbus. Which, groups like these were not military, and usually were volunteers aiding in the backlines. It was not until 1978, the last bill requesting benefits and service records submitted to congress, in a decade of change and growth for women all over the nation, that the world started to pay attention. Mark Hough, an attorney from Seattle decided to take the case. He received paperwork, booklets, letters, and even a treasured uniform from ladies still fighting for their benefits. It was the uniform that changed the case. This serge wool navy uniform had U.S. cut-out officer’s pins, U.S. military blackened army buttons, and the Signal Corps insignia on the collar. No contract civilian would have worn such a thing. These women were military. Finally, in 1979, congress declared the Female Telephone Operators Unit a real military unit and sent out honorable discharge papers and Victory Medals to all who served.  Fewer than 20 were still alive.
The Hello Girls who served from 1917-1919 in World War I proved themselves beyond a doubt. They did not flee from battle or fire; they did not break under stress. They did not bend or break in the battle that was to follow. A battle fought with the very country in which they served and fought for with honor. One of these women, Grace Banker, was the first female to get awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.  They were the first skirted soldiers of the United States, and they always got the message through.
Cobbs, Elizabeth. The Hello Girls. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
Christides, Michelle. The Hello Girls’ 60-Year Battle of World War One. 1978.
Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War I. They Also Served. Niwot, Colorado: The University Press of Colorado, 1997.
New York Times. Seek Phone Girls for Service Abroad. New York, New York: Feb 12 1918.
Perching, John J. Signal Corps Operating Units Commemorative Booklet. US Army, 1918.
Photographer Unknown, Grace Banker, 1918. WWI National Museum and Memorial.
Schneider, Dorothy and Carl J. Into the Breach. American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991
 Elizabeth Cobbs. The Hello Girls. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
York Times. Seek Phone Girls for Service Abroad. New York, New York: Feb
 Michelle Christides. The Hello Girls’ 60-Year Battle of World War One. 1978.
 Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider. Into the Breach. American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991. pg 268
 Elizabeth Cobbs. The Hello Girls. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pg 191
 John J. Persching. Signal Corps Operating Units Commemorative Booklet. US Army, 1918.
 Lettie Gavin. American Women in World War I. They Also Served. Niwot, Colorado: The University Press of Colorado, 1997. Pg 93.
 Photographer unknown, Grace Banker, 1918. WWI National Museum and Memorial.