"In World War I, telephones linked commanding generals with soldiers in muddy trenches. A woman in uniform connected almost every one of their calls, speeding the orders that won the war. Like other soldiers, the "Hello Girls" swore the Army oath and stayed for the duration. A few were graduates of elite colleges. Most were ordinary, enterprising young women motivated by patriotism and adventure, eager to test their mettle and save the world. The first contingent arrived in France just as the German Army trained "Big Bertha" on Paris, bombarding the frightened city as the new women of the U.S. Army struggled through unlit streets to find their billets. A handful followed General Pershing to the gates of Verdun and the battlefields of Meuse-Argonne. When the switchboard operators sailed home a year later, the Army dismissed them without veterans' benefits or victory medals. The women commenced a sixty-year fight that a handful of survivors carried to triumph in 1979. This book shows how technological developments encouraged an unusual band to volunteer for military service at the precise moment that feminists back home championed a federal suffrage amendment. The same desire to participate fully in the life of their country animated both groups, and both struggled after 1920 to reap the rewards of victory. Their experiences illuminate ways in which sex-role change was embraced and resisted throughout the twentieth century, and the ways that men and women struggled together for gender justice."--Provided by publisher.
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When the call went out in 1917 for bilingual (English-French) telephone operators to be mobilized, trained and shipped overseas, women responded in the thousands, a testament to their willingness to "do their bit" in the war. Only a few hundred were ultimately chosen and sent to France, to work under the leadership of General John "Black Jack" Pershing, and they performed admirably under difficult and often primitive conditions.
And all of this was taking place against a backdrop of women marching in protest back home, lobbying for women's voting rights, a controversial issue, which President Wilson finally came around to support. Cobbs puts the suffrage issue front and center, effectively using her narrative of the service and sacrifices of the "Hello Girls" to do this -
"Women used the conflict to achieve their long-standing demand for full citizenship. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden and ten other countries enfranchised females before America. The nation accustomed to congratulating itself as the vanguard of liberal democracy brought up the rear."
But even without this "full citizenship," women volunteered for service overseas, some as young as 16 (lying about their age), others in their 30s, mostly single, but a few married. They came from all over the country to New York City, where they were "kitted up" (at their own expense), and given some rudimentary training in military customs, drilling "atop the AT&T building at 195 Broadway." But there was much confusion and disagreement about women's actual status within the military. Eventually they were equated to "cadets" - not quite officers, but a bit higher than draftees and enlisted men. On their voyage across the Atlantic (and, later, the English Channel), their convoys braved prowling German submarines, and their numbers - and those of the dough boys also on board these troop ships - were thinned by outbreaks of influenza, for which sometimes the ships were quarantined for weeks once they reached port. And, once "in-country," they had to walk a fine line as representatives of their sex in a world full of men. Usually appreciated, but often resented, these women persevered and held their heads up, doing their jobs. They also managed to bond with each other and have some fun in their off-duty time
"Merle Egan's friends sent one another into paroxysms of laughter whenever they recalled a YWCA hostess admonishing them to 'be sure you wear your brassiere" at army dances in France. 'After that,' Egan later wrote, 'whenever we had a date someone would say, 'Are you wearing your brassiere?'".
Painstakingly researched and assiduously annotated, Cobbs used diaries and letters, as well as old newspaper articles, and government records and archives to bring to life the stories of these scores of women. A few - Grace Banker, Inez Crittenden, Berthe Hunt and the LeBreton sisters - came to the fore. But it was Merle Egan (Anderson), from Helena, Montana, who saw their story through to the very end, fighting for decades after the war to have these women fully recognized for their valiant efforts.
Although the narrative may be occasionally a bit dry and slow-moving - all those notes - THE HELLO GIRLS will do much for the story of women's equal rights. In fact, it deserves to be included in supplemental reading lists for Women's Studies courses. Highly recommended.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
Also during this time the fight for suffrage was rocking the White House and President Wilson. Pushed by Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, Wilson reversed his stance, partly based on the Hello Girls.
Knowing nothing about World War I, this book was a great capsulized discussion of the fighting and the US response to their allies. The author weaves that war effort, the working women and the suffrage movement into package. Although there was no indication that the switchboard operators were interested in suffrage or voted when they returned, it was an interesting companion piece because nothing happens in a vacuum.
A fantastically interesting book and one that I highly recommend.