In late 1917, General John Pershing called for women to fill the ranks of the U.S. Army Signal Corps as telephone-switchboard operators over in France. He wanted women to direct calls across the warzone, freeing up their male counterparts in the Signal Corps to be out in the field, stringing and repairing telephone wire. The women were to be bilingual, be over 25, and have previous switchboard experience. When not enough qualified women were found, the age minimum, and sometimes even the experience requirement, was waived.
The first group entered training at Camp Franklin (now Fort Meade) in January 1918, where they were sworn into the army and received some training. They had to purchase their uniforms themselves, which consisted of a navy blue shirt, skirt, and coat, with a navy blue felt hat with an orange and white cord. In total, there were about 450 of these switchboard operators, colloquially called “Hello Girls.” Led by Chief Operator Grace Banker, they served in 75 cities and towns across France and England.
The Hello Girls serving at the front were sometimes in danger. On one occasion, their building was bombarded, and it caught fire. Despite orders to evacuate, they stayed to work the switchboards until they were finally threatened with court-martial unless they left. But an hour after the fire was out, the women were back at work, using the switchboards that hadn’t been destroyed.
Many of the Hello Girls stayed in France after the armistice, directing calls that organized the troops’ withdrawal. When they returned back to the States, the Army told them they couldn’t be honorably discharged since they were considered civilians working for the Army rather than military personnel. But this didn’t mesh with the fact the women had been sworn in, were given uniforms, and had to follow Army regulations; some of them had even received citations for bravery. In fact, Grace Banker had been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. The Hello Girls fought for 60 years for veteran status, and finally, in 1978, President Carter signed a bill giving them that designation; only about 50 of the original 450 were still alive to receive the honor.
Read more about the Hello Girls here, here, or here. Or search Fold3’s historical Newspapers collection for contemporary articles about them. You can also find more stories and documents from World War I in Fold3’s World War I collection.