Women switchboard soldiers brought American efficiency to the French front during World War I.
General John Pershing had a problem. When America entered World War I in 1917, a jury-rigged battlefield telephone system was the primary means of getting orders to troops on the front lines in France. But the French operators were hopelessly inefficient and spoke little English. The solution? Recruit women telephone operators from the States who were fluent in both languages. The hitch? Apart from nursing, American women had never served in an official military capacity. Nonetheless, Pershing had no shortage of recruits. His call for “switchboard soldiers” was answered by more than 7,000 women, of whom 233 were selected to go overseas. They were known, affectionately, as “Hello Girls.”
The Hello Girls relayed messages about troop movements and supplies—often in military code—and acted as interpreters between American and French units. A group of operators working near the front during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final Allied push of the war, initially refused to leave their positions at the switchboard after their barracks caught fire, and went back to work as soon as the flames were extinguished. Several Hello Girls received citations for meritorious conduct, and Chief Operator Grace Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Others made a difference just by being there. “When I was off duty I sometimes spent the whole night talking on the phone with the boys at the Front,” said Esther Fresnel Goodall. “I kept thinking it might be their last night.”
Still, none of the Hello Girls qualified for veteran status when they returned home. Although they had been sworn into the service of the U.S. Signal Corps, wore mandatory army-issued uniforms and were subject to the rules of military discipline, they were considered civilian contract employees, not military personnel. The distinction flummoxed Merle Egan Anderson, who spearheaded a decades-long effort by the women to gain official recognition for their service. “We had signed no contracts,” she said. “We had served in a war zone under military orders…and we had been constantly reminded of our duties and responsibilities as ‘Army women.’” Fewer than 20 of the Hello Girls were still alive in 1979 when Congress tacked an amendment onto a GI Bill improvement act that granted them honorable discharges, veterans benefits and World War I victory medals.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.