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The Hello Girls of World War I – Heeding the Call

I had never heard of the Hello Girls until recently, so I did a little reading. I found a number of pieces about them from the Army, the Archives (including a video), the Smithsonian, and even a recent book, Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, but I thought Inside Adams should do its part to share their story.

If you searched for photographs on the Library of Congress website for telephone operator, many of the images you will find feature women. It was a good job for women at a time when opportunities for women outside of the home were more limited than they are today. Many took this opportunity and excelled. This became important with the coming of World War I.

Communication during war is essential and during World War I the U.S. Army needed switchboard operators. More importantly, they also needed operators who spoke French and English fluently. Because so many men were fighting and so many telephone operators were women, General Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces, put out the call to recruit women specifically. Notices appeared in the newspapers in early 1918 and women answered the call. According to one article, pay began at $50 a month, although chief operators would make more. Interested parties could find forms in room 826 in the Mills Building.

group photo of uniformed women with male Army officers posted in front a horse statue in Paris

American telephone girls on arrival for “hello” duty in France. They all can speak both English and French. 1918. From the Series: Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981, National Archives & Records Administration.

Thousands of women like Miss Helen Ives applied – eager to do their part. Several hundred were accepted and after a period of training, the first women set sail for France in March 1918. A March 29th Stars & Stripes story announced their arrival.

 

HELLO GIRLS HERE
IN REAL ARMY DUDS

Signal Corps Colors Adorn
Hats of New Bilingual
Wire Experts

THEY HAVE SERGEANTS, TOO

Company of 33 Regulars Repre-
sents Half of States of Union

 

Later that year the October 4, 1918 Stars & Stripes recounts the experiences of Chief Operator Grace D. Banker and Operators Esther V. Fresnel. Helen E. Hill, Berthe M. Hunt, Marie Large, and Suzanne Prevot:

Six women operators of the Signal Corps—six American girls who jumped at the chance to be there – were in at the start of the St. Mihiel push of September 12, at the headquarters of the First American Army.

During the six days that followed the 12th’s initial heave they kept on their jobs, handling an average of 40,000 words a day over the eight lines they operated, and working any hours that were asked of them, day or night.

When they finally did move out of there, it was only to move with the First Army’s headquarters to another part of the line, where they arrived in time to do similar yeoman service when the September 26 drive opened on the front northwest of Verdun.

While their contributions had been recognized–General Pershing mentions them in his book My Experience in the World War–official recognition of their service took decades. Most of the women had died before the passage of the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977 (Title IV) gave them discharges from the military and granted Veteran benefits.

As for where the phrase Hello Girls comes from, it likely has something to do with the conversation between caller and operator though I didn’t find any definite answer. While I heard of them in the context of the female telephone operators in France during the war, it does seem this just continued to be a phrase that was already common in the U.S. because I found several mentions from 1910, 1888, 1885, and 1884.

If you are interested in World War I, as part of the commemorations for the 100th anniversary, various Library blogs published a number of posts. Also, the military paper Stars & Stripes is a good resource. However, if you want to learn more about these extraordinary ladies; I also found two articles – “A Telephone Switchboard Operator with the A.E.F. in France” by Thomas Sage Wyman in Army History (no. 43; Fall 1997/Winter 1998) and “The Hello Girls: Women Telephone Operators with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I” by Jill Frahm in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (vol. 3, no. 3; July, 2004). There were also a number of articles in the Bell Telephone News titled “Of Interest to our Girls” in September, October, and November 1919.

Army signal corps calling for women to be telegraph and telephone operators to be civilian employees with a desire for French and English fluency to apply at room 826 Mills building in Washington

Want Women Telephone Operators in U.S. Army, from South Bend News-Times. 09 Jan. 1918.

Lastly, Chronicling America is a good resources for this time period and can provide other interesting stories – though they are a bit harder to find (hint: limiting the date range to 1917-1919 can help). I found one story about them in Germany, one about the good work they were doing, and another about women’s uniforms. If you find some interesting articles and image in Chronicling America pop the link or a citation to them in the comments.

 

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Inside Adams — it’s free!

 

Note: After I sent this out it was brought to my attention that my colleague Amber Paranick over at Headlines and Heroes wrote about these ladies back in 2019 so go read her post – Hello Girls Answer Uncle Sam’s Call.

One Comment

  1. ZHILINGZHOU
    April 22, 2021 at 2:10 am

    well done for the U.S.

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