The US entered the First World War in April 1917, some two and a half years after the conflict started. Militarily unprepared, it had to assemble troops scattered around the country and ship them to Europe, about 4,000 miles away, across an ocean. The logistics of the exercise – approximately 1.4 million Americans eventually served at the front – demanded an efficient communications service. In The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, Elizabeth Cobbs draws on a range of official documents, as well as letters and diaries, to tell the fascinating story of the forgotten women telephone operators who were a critical part of the war effort.
John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, demanded female “wire experts” when he found out that there were too few experienced men able to keep him connected with troops under fire. Training camps on American soil prepared women to serve as operators for the army, despite fears of “complications” arising when men and women mixed. But the selected women, who had passed stiff competitive tests, swore the army oath and training went ahead. Their army suits, which included skirts cut nine inches above the ground to clear the mud, were complemented by black sateen bloomers to protect their modesty against any hem-lifting breezes. However, unlike the women engaged in clerical work in the navy and the marines, these recruits were not given full military rank.
In 1918, the US Army Signal Corps sent 223 women to France to work on the switchboards. Many of those we meet in Cobbs’ account had French connections, such as the bilingual 18-year-old Louise LeBreton, a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Others were inspired mainly by patriotism: Marie Gagnon from North Dakota had brothers in the Marine Corps and wished to do her share. The team’s torchbearer was 25-year-old Grace Banker, who would be awarded a Distinguished Service Medal.
The male soldiers welcomed, resented and eventually saluted the new recruits. The work was challenging, especially when the women followed Pershing to the battlefields. On one occasion, when his car passed by, Banker and her colleagues saluted him and he commented: “Those girls are regular soldiers.”
However, when the war ended and the women eventually returned home, they were not recognised as soldiers. Peace would bring neither victory medals nor veterans’ benefits, even though, at long last, in June 1919, a vote in the US Senate granted women the vote. But the continuing lack of recognition from the army rankled, and some of these women campaigned for 60 years to rectify the situation. In her eighties, Merle Anderson wrote poignantly: “I realize my time…is short, but I feel our small group deserves, at least, a place in Army history.” Success came in 1979. With the help of the National Organisation for Women and other powerful allies, the female operators were finally issued with army discharge papers. Sadly, only a few lived to see the day.
When we commemorate women in paid work who made an invaluable contribution to the First World War, we usually think of nurses, land girls and “munitionettes”. The Hello Girls makes vividly visible a group of women who, until now, have been unjustly hidden.
June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth.
The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers
By Elizabeth Cobbs
Harvard University Press
Published 27 April 2017