by Susan Jarrett
Women and WWI is a series based on historical accounts of women who fought for the Allied Cause during The First World War. Women’s war contributions have largely been dismissed and were not formerly acknowledged until the late 1970s when women of the US Army Signal Corps Telephone Operator’s Units demanded recognition from the US government and equal status as military veterans. This series is based on first hand accounts as well as research by other historians. Women and WWI hopes to spark continued curiosity about the roles women played during The Great War and further propel women’s history into mainstream consciousness.
In America, the call to war sounded in December 1917. Due to the worsening state of communication at the Western front, General John J. Pershing requested the formation of a specialized unit formally called the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. This unit was unique because it was only open to women applicants. And it was completely volunteer. Candidates had to be proficient speakers of the French language and be able to translate communications on the spot. Over 7,600 women applied for this volunteer service, but only 223 women were accepted- thus becoming the U.S. Army’s all female unit we now call the “Hello Girls.”
The term “Hello Girls” was not new to contemporary vernacular. The earliest notation of “Hello Girls” comes from Mark Twain‘s 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He writes”The humblest hello-girl along ten thousand miles of wire could teach gentleness, patience, modesty, manners, to the highest duchess in Arthur’s land.” The term referred to female switchboard operators as it was common practice to greet callers with “hello” upon ringing the switchboard. It is therefore no surprise to learn most of the US Army’s Hello Girls were indeed former switchboard operators or employees of telecommunications companies.
Unlike telegraph and radio communications, the telephone was untraceable. And they were immediate. However, every call had to be connected manually. And women could connect five calls in the same time it took a man to do one. Initially when the US Army arrived in France, the Generals on both sides were confronted with the language barrier. Many American officers did not speak French and many French switch board operators did not speak English. So, the Hello Girls served as translators as well as operators. In an interview by Smithsonian magazine, author Elizabeth Cobbs [The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers] states “They were constantly fielding simultaneous calls; they were translating; they were sweeping the boards; and even giving the time. Artillery kept calling them and saying, can I have the time operator? The women were really critical” (Boissoneault).
Grace Banker, chief telephone operator, and her unit sailed for Europe in March 1918. Over the next year, six more units would follow. The Hello Girls worked in varied locations in varied locations and facilities- from makeshift bases just several miles from the front lines to the more stationary communications hubs in Tours.
Banker writes in her memoirs, “the work was fascinating; much of it was in codes- which changed frequently. The girls had to speak both French and English and they also had to understand American Doughboy French.” The women were often in range of German artillery, but they stayed at their posts because their work was essential” (Grace D. Banker collection).
Like all women who rose to the call of their countries, patriotism and a sense of “doing one’s bit” was a driving force behind their motivations. One widow who had lost a son in battle joined La Dame Blanche with her four daughters to work as couriers and transcribers in an effort to reconcile their loss. Hello Girl Merle Egan wrote upon leaving for France, “As we sailed out of the harbor past the Statue of Liberty…. there was an emotional tension experienced, I am sure by every Veteran who has served overseas. For some, there would be no returning but we knew we were answering our country’s call and we were proud of that mission” (Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl.”). It would take 60 years for the service of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit to be officially recognized by the US government.
When Grace Banker and Merle Egan and the other 221 Hello Girls returned home from war in 1919, they were told by the US Army they weren’t members of the US Military. Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by General Pershing but was told she was not a veteran. She was merely a civilian who participated in war work. She was told her war service did not count. She writes in her diary on November 11, 1919, “We have lived so long under war conditions that it doesn’t seem that it could come so simply. On Nov. 11th the Armistice was signed at eleven o’clock this morning, the eleventh day, the eleventh hour. All fighting was ordered to cease at that time. Our Corps lines were in bad condition and poor Capt. Beaumont of the telegraph office was having a terrible time. Suppose the message didn’t get through all right. It must get through if not by telegraphs then by telephone. So we put him through on our lines and he used my telephone. He yelled the message out. It had to get through!” (Grace D. Banker collection).
In Lille, there is a monument erected in 1920 to Louise De Bettignies inscribed with the words “To Louise De Bettignies and to the heroic women of invaded countries 1914-1918.” History only records the name of Louise De Bettignies because she was caught and her trial caused an international sensation. The work of thousands of nameless women has been obscured. But why? The majority of archives from these secret services were destroyed during WWII and the reason is unclear. Was it to protect the organizations themselves or was there another reason? In a 1926 newspaper article, an intelligence officer is quoted as saying “Women are fundamentally inaccurate. They experience a constant ‘urge’ to be working in the limelight…” (Chronicling America). Upon reaching Tours, it was Merle Egan’s her duty to train men on the switchboard. “The men were initially hostile: ‘Where’s my skirt?’ was their standard greeting. . . . [After] I reminded them that any soldier could carry a gun but the safety of a whole division might depend on the switchboard one of them was operating I had no more trouble” (Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl.”).
Dismissive tones such as this resonate throughout history and as Proctor states so eloquently in her book “have left no space to honor [women’s wartime sacrifices and contributions] as active, intelligent patriots” (109). Even the terminology used for these women is deeply gendered. The term “farmerette” means little or less than farmer. Referring to women as “girls” denotes a child-like and inexperienced nature. It is often used to infer that women must be taken care of or raised (i.e. The Pygmalion complex). A 2018 Daily Mail article attempting to celebrate the heroism of Louise De Bettignies instead belittles her efforts from the get go with its article title “French Housekeeper Spied for Britain in WWI before being captured by Germans” (September 21). Classifying Louise as a “Housekeeper,” dismisses her upper class lineage, extensive educations, and paints her simply as a rogue savant relegating her back into domestic service. It devalues her status as an elite intelligence agent of MI5. Although this is terminology contemporary to the era, we as modern historians must be aware of the biases the language continues to promote.
As we look to the future, I challenge you to lift the veil of obscurity and uncover the hidden truths of our diverse past. Never again allow the contributions of women be dismissed or forgotten. Amplify the whispers of our history into a loud and clear roar. Let the voices, faces, sacrifices, and resilience of all those who have come before us spark inspiration for how we will shape our future. Let the stories of women remain Invisible No More.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “Women On the Frontlines of WWI Came to Operate Telephones.” Smithsonian Magazine, APRIL 4, 2017.
Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. Victor Gollancz Ltd. London, 1933.
Brittain, Vera. Lady into Woman. Andrew Dakers Limited. London, 1953.
“Chronicling America- Historic American Newspapers.” Library of Congress. chroniclingamerica.loc.gov
“Grace D. Banker collection (1918),” William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.
“Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl.” Women’s History Matters. montanawomenshistory.org
Timble, Carolyn. “100 Years Ago “Hello Girl” Grace Banker receives Distinguished Service Medal.” United States World War One Centennial Commission. www.worldwar1centennial.org
CalicoBall is a grassroots effort to document, preserve, and present rural America’s diverse historical traditions. CalicoBall is an educational extension of Maggie May Clothing. All rights reserved.