During WWI, the United States War Department hired female switchboard operators to accompany the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe. These women had to be fluent in French and English and preferably have previous switchboard experience. Their job was to connect important calls, translate information, and communicate command orders. They were known as “Hello Girls” and often worked in dangerous conditions and on the front lines. The “Hello Girls” earned the respect of soldiers and military leaders, yet following the war, officials denied them veteran status, bonuses, and hospitalization for disabilities. More than 100 years later, an effort to right this wrong is underway. In 2021, legislation was introduced to award a single Congressional Gold Medal to the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.
In the years leading up to WWI, the fight for suffrage gained momentum. Those opposed to enfranchising women argued that giving women the right to vote would disrupt the moral fiber of society. They also argued that since women couldn’t fight as soldiers, the right to vote belonged to men who could.
As military leaders geared up for war, telephone technology also gained momentum. The telephone played a critical part in military strategy. Wires ran through trenches allowing military officials to communicate with soldiers on the ground while keeping a bird’s eye view of the battle. It was women, however, that were masters of this technology. When information needed relaying quickly, a “Hello Girl” could connect a call in about 10 seconds, while men from the Signal Corps often took a full minute. At the direction of General John J. Pershing, a call went out for the Signal Corps to hire female telephone operators. More than 7,000 women expressed interest in the job. Ultimately, 223 went to Europe. They were issued military uniforms and took the Army oath. They were the first female soldiers deployed to a combat zone. However, some officials still considered them civilian employees.
The first contingent of “Hello Girls” arrived in France in March 1918. They soon found themselves working on the front lines, where they endured the constant threat of shells, shrapnel, gassing, and sicknesses like the Spanish flu (which eventually claimed the lives of two “Hello Girls”). The women worked long and exhausting hours. Nevertheless, when their shifts ended, they could often be found visiting the sick and injured in field hospitals.
The “Hello Girls” were among the first Americans to arrive in France and among the last to leave. After the Armistice, a contingent of “Hello Girls” moved to Paris to translate during peace proceedings. When the women finally returned to the United States, they were denied discharge papers and not recognized as veterans. Ironically, other women who served as nurses, secretaries, or clerks did receive veteran status. The work of the “Hello Girls” impressed President Woodrow Wilson and helped change his mind about the suffrage movement. On June 4, 1919, the 19th amendment passed that gave women the right to vote.
In the decades following WWI, Congress introduced many bills to give the “Hello Girls” proper recognition. Finally, in 1977, a bill was passed recognizing them as veterans. Three of the surviving “Hello Girls” received honorable discharges in a special ceremony in 1979.
In 2021, the House and Senate introduced bipartisan legislation to award the “Hello Girls” a single Congressional Gold Medal in honor of their service, devotion, the 60-year struggle for veterans’ benefits, and recognition as soldiers. The bill’s sponsors are currently hoping to gain enough support to bring the bill up for a vote. If you would like to learn more about the “Hello Girls,” search Fold3® today!