Prior to the World Wars, the Army occasionally used women in what it considered gender appropriate roles. For example, civilian women, often known as camp followers, cooked and mended for Soldiers during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars much as they had done for in times of peace. A few women acted as nurses during the American Revolution and continued to do so after the country gained its independence, despite popular concerns about the close contact with males this work required.
Early twentieth century advances in military communications-electronics technology, combined with manpower shortages, provided the Army with opportunities to employ women in less traditionally feminine roles. Here is the first in a two-part series on Women in the Army, on the “Hello Girls” WWI.
The Signal Corps consequently used women as telephone operators during WWI. The Corps initially recruited bilingual women from commercial telephone companies, but later accepted less experienced applicants to fill the growing demand.
According to historian Rebecca Robbins Raines in Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the first unit of female telephone operators to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris in March 1918. Approximately two hundred female telephone operators ultimately served in operating units in the First, Second, and Third Army Headquarters. The women worked in Paris and dozens of other locations throughout France and England. Nicknamed the “Hello Girls,” these women worked long hours, often under combat conditions.
In one instance, the Army forcefully evacuated the Female Telephone Operators Unit of the First Army Headquarters because the women refused to desert their posts even after their building caught fire. The women, after re-admittance to the building, restored operations within an hour. They subsequently won a commendation from the Chief Signal Officer of the First Army. Grace Banker, chief operator, even received a Distinguished Service Medal for her wartime service.
WWI Chief Signal Officer Major General George Owen Squier later cited women’s “unquestioned superiority” as switchboard operators and their value in freeing men for the fighting front. The Report of the Chief Signal Officer, 1919, declared that, “The use of women operators throughout the entire war was decidedly a success…”
That success notwithstanding, the Signal Corps released its “Hello Girls” soon after the armistice.
Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Army Signal Corps museum, the female operators returned home only to realize that “all Army regulations were worded in the ‘male’ gender, so the women were denied veterans status. They were considered civilians working for the Army. This perplexed the women because they were required to wear regulation uniforms, they were sworn into service and had to follow all Army regulations.” Only decades later, in 1978, did legislation award the operators veteran’s status. Despite the regrettable lag in official recognition, proponents of the gender integration of the Army during WWII often cited the Signal Corps’ successful employment of the “Hello Girls.”
The Signal Corps’ use of civilian female telephone operators during WWI represented one of the ways the Army first cautiously used women in what it considered gender acceptable roles, outside of nurses and camp followers. Breaking down the barriers that impeded camp followers and even Army nurses, these pioneering women answered the call that would integrate by gender what historians have called the “most prototypically masculine of all social institutions,” the United States Army.