The “Hello Girls”

November 12, 2018

Heroic Women Veterans of World War I

This World War I switchboard worker was one of the “Hello Girls,” as the Army called them. They were American women who served as telephone operators at the French frontline in 1918 under General John J. Pershing. When he took command of American forces fighting with the French and other allies against Germany, Pershing realized that the local telephone service was unreliable. He replaced the operators with Army Signal Corps men. Their orders were to connect American officers with their French counterparts and act as simultaneous translators. Efficiency did not improve. The men—many of whom looked down on the job as “women’s work”—often took as long as a full minute to make connections, even when the message involved a command to advance or hold fire.

At Pershing’s request, the Army put out a call for telephone operators equally fluent in French and English. Only women were employed in the profession at that time. After physical and psychological exams, and Secret Service investigations to prove they were loyal to the United States, 223 women were sworn into the U.S. Army Signal Corps and underwent a few weeks of specialized training at the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in New York City. They sailed to their posts in France in troop ships accompanied by destroyers to defend against enemy submarines. Their pay was equivalent to Signal Corps men, ranging by rank from $50 to $125 per month.

Shortly after they took up their positions, connections were reduced from 60 to 10 seconds. The women were also adept at detecting tapped calls and using codes to redirect suspect ones. They had to ignore the surrounding maelstrom, take down messages, and coordinate many calls at once. During their tenure, they connected 26 million calls.

Back Our Girls over There, 1918, for United War Work Campaign and YWCA. Clarence F. Underwood (1871–1929). Commercial lithograph, sheet: 27 5/16 × 20 1/2 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan, 1978.

Hello Girls on the Job

Clarence Underwood created this poster to raise money and awareness for the Young Women’s Christian Association (their logo is in the upper left) and its alliance with the United War Work Campaign, a coalition of several organizations dedicated to the war effort. In the poster, the mass of armed troops, firestorm in the background, and agitated horse emphasize the dangerous conditions near the Hello Girls’ battle stations. In the midst of combat outside her window, the operator maintains a calm expression and posture, concentrating solely on the switchboard in front of her.

The image did not exaggerate the women’s bravery. On October 30, 1918, when fire engulfed the Signal Corps center, the operators ignored evacuation orders until the last possible moment. After the fire was out, they returned to their posts and continued to work the still-operating lines. Several Hello Girls earned medals for their dedication to duty.

Despite the operators’ courage under fire from German shelling, primarily at numerous locations in France, the Army magazine Stars and Stripes devoted paragraphs to descriptions of their uniforms’ colors and buttons, commenting that “they’ve got it on the rest of us in that they know how to sew on those buttons.” The magazine also referred to how pretty they were and how long it might take them to arrange their hair for the day. It’s worth noting that the operators endured these patronizing attitudes while sacrificing for a country in which women were not even allowed to vote.

After the Armistice, many of the Hello Girls were moved to Paris to support the peace talks or to Germany to assist the occupation forces.

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

When the Hello Girls came home and requested their discharge documents, information about their benefits, and the medals they had won, the Army informed them that they were not veterans because the Army did not admit women. Officials insisted that—given Army regulations that soldiers had to be men—it would have been impossible for women to have served in the Army. They would receive no discharge papers, veterans’ benefits, or medals, even those who had suffered injury or illness as a result of their service.

The women asked the Army’s top command how they explain:

  • The Army enlistment oaths administered to the operators
  • Army publications describing them as soldiers
  • The award of medals to which only soldiers were entitled
  • And the fact that the operators were subject to military justice.

The reactions of the stubborn Army officials ranged from befuddlement to hostility. They remained unmoved for six decades.

Recognition

During the 1970s, the women’s movement brought about renewed impetus for justice for the Hello Girls. In 1977, near the end of the 60-year fight involving 50 rebuffed petitions by Hello Girls to Congress, lawmakers finally relented and passed legislation in 1978 to retroactively acknowledge the Hello Girls’ service and establish their veterans benefits. Only 33 of those who had served were still alive. One died the week before the papers were issued. On Veterans’ Day, 1979, the Presidio Army Museum in San Francisco honored seven operators who were able to attend a ceremony where they were awarded U.S. Army Victory Medals at the opening of an exhibition devoted to their story. The remaining Hello Girls were given military burials.

No Hello Girls are alive today. On July 3, 2018, Senators Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Dean Heller (R-Nevada) introduced the Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act, co-sponsored by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin). The honor is equal to the Presidential Medal of Freedom as the highest civilian award given by the U.S. government, posthumously in this case. The bill is still in committee.

A New Musical Play

On November 13, The Hello Girls: A New American Musical will open at the 59E59 Theater in New York. An announcement refers to the operators who had to struggle for decades for justice from the country they risked their lives for, describing them correctly despite years of Army denials: “From New York to Paris…(the play) chronicles the story of America’s first women soldiers.”

Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration

Sources:

Elizabeth Cobbs, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers (Harvard University Press, 2017)

Elizabeth M Collins, “World War I’s Hello Girls: Paving the Way for Women in the U. S. Army,” Soldiers / The Official U. S. Army Magazine: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2014/03/world-war-is-hello-girls-paving-the-way-for-women-in-the-u-s-army/

Interview with M. Elizabeth M. Collins
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/women-frontlines-wwi-came-operate-telephones-180962687/

Meg Jones, “Wisconsin filmmaker creates documentary of WWI female telephone operators,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 12, 2018.

Julie Zeilinger, “They Were America’s First Female Soldiers. Now They’re Getting the Recognition They Deserve,” Task and Purpose, August 22, 2018 https://taskandpurpose.com/hello-girls-army-female-soldiers/

Adam Rogan, “Thanks to documentary, “Hello Girls” may receive Congressional Gold Medals,” Journal Times, September 1, 2018

Senate bill introduced in 2018: https://www.veterans.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Hello%20Girls%20Congressional%20Gold%20Medal%20Act%20of%202018%20-%20Signed%20Bill.pdf



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