“The humblest hello-girl along ten thousand miles of wire could teach gentleness, patience, modesty, manners, to the highest duchess in Arthur’s land”.
Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
“Hello girls” was the popular term for female switchboard operators in the US prior to World War I. Four hundred and fifty of them were recruited to serve with the AEF in France during the Great War. Receiving Signal Corps training, they earned the same pay as their male colleagues in the Signal Corps. The women had to be bilingual and fluent in both English and French. Although uniformed, and subject to Army discipline and eligible for Army decorations, they were not given veteran status by Congress until 1978.
The women were an essential part of the war effort. They were simply swifter, about six times so, than their male colleagues who lacked their experience as switch board operators. They were also faster than female French telephone operators in France, as Captain E.J. Wesson, who recruited the Hello Girls, noted at the time: “In Paris, it takes from 40 to 60 seconds to complete one call. Our girls are equipped to handle 300 calls in an hour.”
The women lived up to their billing, vastly improving telephone communications as the AEF went into battle, the women often serving in areas subject to artillery fire near the front lines. Pioneers, the Hello Girls paved the way for expanded service of American women for the much larger conflict fought just over two decades later.