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WWI poster, 1918, by Clarence F. Underwood currently on display in the American History Museum (Library of Congress)
The development of the telephone in the late 19th century created a new job for women: the switchboard operator. These highly skilled “wire experts” who worked at a fast pace became known as the Hello Girls. When the United States joined World War I, more than 200 bilingual operators were recruited and sent to France to staff Army communications. They were uniquely qualified not only to make rapid-fire connections under battlefield pressures, but also to conduct simultaneous translations between American and French officers.
The Hello Girls received a baptism by fire when German troops pounded Paris with heavy artillery. A handful followed General “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, to battlefields where they served through shelling and bombardment. Grace Banker, their 25-year-old leader, won the Distinguished Service Medal. But their return to the States tested a different kind of valor.
The Hello Girls (Harvard University Press) by historian Elizabeth Cobbs tells the little-known story of how America’s first women soldiers helped win World War I and earn the vote—and later took on the U.S. Army. Unceremoniously discharged in 1920 as civilians, not military veterans, the Hello Girls arrived home to new voting rights with ratification of the 19th Amendment and began a fight with the Army to be treated as equals of their male comrades. A handful of survivors carried their 60-year battle to triumph in 1979, with the eventual help of the National Organization for Women, Senator Barry Goldwater, and a crusading Seattle attorney.
She joins NPR’s Cokie Roberts for a conversation about the significance of the Hello Girls’ contribution to the Allied victory in World War I and uses their story to chronicle the progression of women’s rights throughout the 20th century.
The Hello Girls is available for signing.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
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Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)