They served before they could vote: The Hello Girls

Kaylah Jackson
October 08, 2018 - 6:24 pm

(Photo courtesy of Kaylah Jackson)

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“You’re in the Army now,” was what the female telephone operators of World War I heard when they responded to the call of service by Gen. Jon Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. But when they returned from the war they found no “welcome home” from the country they served.

During WWI, women who took on the job of telephone switchboard operators became known as the “Hello Girls.” The 223 women, who were fluent in English and French served as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

For decades the story of these women was unknown. Then, in 2017, "The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers was published," a book telling the story of over two hundred women that served as switchboard operators overseas for the U.S. Army. 

Jim Theres, a writer/director came across the book after a typo in a google search led him to the author, Elizabeth Cobbs. The Wisconsin filmmaker was both unfamiliar and surprised by the history of the Hello Girls. Once he and Cobbs met, it only seemed right a visual adaptation of these women’s stories be created.

Most recently Theres' documentary entitled, ‘The Hello Girls,' chronicles the story of these women who left their families back home and traveled to France to serve on behalf of their country. During the first World War, the American military telephone system was provided by the French and, as expected, created a number of communication challenges due to language barriers. The average male recruit took almost 60 seconds to pick up one line, take notes, and keep track of the line's destination. 

This communication issue sparked Gen. Pershing to usher a call in the United States, asking for bilingual individuals to run the switchboards and handle the calls. By the end of the 1800s, telephone operators were overwhelming women and Gen. Pershing's call to serve was answered by 7,600 American women. These female telephone operators shortened those life or death calls from 60 seconds to 10 seconds.

By the end of the war, the women had connected over 26 million calls for the American Expeditionary Forces, essentially making communications between units possible. Without the Hello Girls, the men in uniform would've literally been left in the dark. The women wore Army uniforms and swore an oath. And although their service was integral, they were told they were not "veterans" when they returned home,

“Making this film, I thought about them often. I wanted to make a film that the modern woman would be proud to know and proud to see that here are some women whose shoulders you’re standing on,” says Theres who served in the Army himself alongside men and women in the Persian Gulf.

The documentary, which has been shown at a variety of festivals, made a lasting impact for women veterans in the audience at the 2018 Annual Association of the United States Army Meeting and Exposition.

For Candy Martin, who retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5) in the Army Reserves, the documentary was especially touching. She entered the military in 1975 as part of the Army Women’s Corps (WAC) and faced many of the same issues as the female switchboard operators. Surprisingly, WACs were not considered part of the U.S. Army.

"When we were watching the documentary, it just brought tears to my eyes,” said Martin. “I get it because we were not in the Army…we were not allowed to carry weapons…we had poise and etiquette classes, how to put on your make up…it was really such a drastic means compared to what I retired as in 2014.”

The documentary tells the story of the women through a collection of letters and photographs, partially compiled by Carolyn Timbie, the granddaughter of WWI switchboard operator, Grace Banker.

(Photo courtesy of Kaylah Jackson)

“It pulls everybody to life and it makes my grandmother, these women, just so real, I still get really emotional every time I see that. And just pride and amazement that for so many years the story has been just been below the surface and then just popped out,” said Timbie.

Grace Banker graduated from Barnard College and although she couldn’t vote, served as the Chief Switchboard Operator training the women as telephone operators and even acting as a mother figure for the Hello Girls, many of who joined at the age of 18. Banker was later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

 

“America just doesn’t know what women have done when they served in the military there was no television…many of them [Hello Girls] didn’t have radio and the idea of them getting on a boat and going across the ocean to a place they’ve never known and didn’t know what they were gonna face but they volunteered and they did it and they did it very well,” said Phyllis Wilson, who also retired as a CW5 in the Army Reserves.

From when the women first enlisted in 1917, the Hello Girls, as well as their family members and friends, spent 60 years petitioning to Congress before former President Jimmy Carter signed an official recognition in 1977 that acknowledged their service and distinguished them as veterans.

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