The world is on fire. No, seriously.
In World War I, U.S. General John Pershing recruited over 200 women for a dangerous and crucial assignment.
These women were sent through submarine-infested waters to the front lines, where they were given uniforms and placed in charge of one of the most effective tools the U.S. military had in fighting the war – the telephone.
With helmets and gas masks near-at-hand, the women connected thousands of calls a day, relaying information across the battlefield. Losing telephone connections for even just an hour could mean the difference between victory and defeat and cost countless lives.
The women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps were heroes in the war. But when they returned home, they soon learned that the government that had recruited them for this mission didn’t even consider them veterans.
They didn’t get veterans’ benefits or medical care, or, when they died, military funerals.
It took decades of lobbying to get the women — nicknamed the Hello Girls — the recognition they had earned. Their story is told in historian Elizabeth Cobbs’ new book.
- Elizabeth Cobbs Professor of American History, Texas A&M University; research fellow, Stanford University's Hoover Institute; author, "The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers"; @Elizabeth_Cobbs
Read An Excerpt From "Hello Girls" by Elizabeth Cobbs
Seven touring cars, roadsters, and Model T Fords constituted almost a traffic jam in the partially paved capital of windswept Montana in 1918. A local hero was coming home. The wide western sky was still luminous that bright June evening, when summer’s light bathed the town well past nine o’clock and crickets took up their chorus late.
Some in the party that wheeled jauntily up to the train station were veterans who had been discharged months earlier. Conspicuous with their colorful Victory Medals, the men drew up unto an honor guard and saluted as the tall, dark-eyed woman stepped from the train in her blue Army uniform after crossing 5000 miles of ocean, forest, and prairie. Thirty-year-old Merle Egan was a “big towner” and one of the best long-distance telephone operators in the United States even before she sailed for France. Now she was a local celebrity with her fitted suit, brass insignia, tan parade gloves, and cocky aviation cap. Merle smiled and waved, drained from her long ordeal but happy to spy the eager crowd and the copper dome of the state capitol. It meant she was home.
Montanans adored their girl, a soldier of “unique distinction” and “one of the few women who was in the military service of the United States,” the Helena Daily Independent boasted. Many patriotic Americans had done their bit to win the Great War, but Merle Egan’s bit was especially remarkable. She and two hundred other women had braved shot, shell, and submarines to operate the Army’s vital communications system overseas. General John Pershing had recruited them personally. After the Armistice, Merle stayed on to run the switchboard for the epic peace conference at Versailles.
What wasn’t clear as Merle Egan smiled broadly at friends and admirers on a platform so crowded that shaking hands took an hour was where she and other American women were going next. So much had changed in barely a year. The war had made women into soldiers and American into a world power. It had given the vote to women in Europe, then the United States. Only the week before, the U.S. Senate had approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment after an exhausting seventy-year fight. Yet things were not entirely as they appeared. Despite the hero’s welcome, Merle would soon discover, to her great surprise, that the army denied she had ever been a soldier.
This wasn’t what officials promised when they first went looking for women to run the telephones that American generals needed in order to command every advance or retreat. And Merle Egan was a woman who believed in promises. Little did she know that evening in Helena that the next leg of her journey, from army switchboard operator to women’s rights advocate, would take sixty years.
America’s first female soldiers had been stationed throughout shell-shocked France as part of a compact branch of the U.S. Army known as the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps did not fire cannons, sink submarines, or bayonet invaders. Their job was to send messages. In March 1918, Stars and Stripes hailed the women who arrived during Germany’s bombardment of Paris as “Bilingual Wire Experts.” They called them Uncle Sam’s “Hello Girls.”
Army nurses also served in uniform. Yet theirs was an altruistic occupation designed to alleviate the ravages of war, not advance military objectives per se. The purpose of Signal Corps operators was to help the United States win its war. They were soldiers, not angels.
Technology set the course, propelling change in an unexpected direction. In May 1917, the month after Congress declared war, General John Pershing sailed for France on a ship stuffed with equipment. Nicknamed “Black Jack” for having commanded an all-black regiment on the American frontier in the 1890s, Pershing made sure to carry not only standard gear, but also the newest devices.
Military tackle had undergone a revolution since the last Indian wars only two decades earlier, when Black Jack rode with the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry. Planes had replaced horses. Trucks had overtaken mule trains. Telephone wires had outrun semaphore flags and smoke signals.
But equipment cannot fight. Pershing urgently needed people who could operate these machines instinctively. As a result, once Pershing and his generals arrived in Paris and observed the lay of the land, they ignored laws that said only men could serve in the Army. The Industrial Revolution had called daughters and wives from the home to fill new jobs. Telephone operating was largely sex-segregated. If America was going to position and command its immense forces, it needed women to handle the advanced technologies at which they were expert. They would have to withstand torpedoes, cannon fire, influenza, and petty-minded bureaucrats to send the word “over there.”
Most worked behind the lines. A small group followed Pershing wherever he made his headquarters, from the short but intense Battle of St. Mihiel to the desperately drawn out Meuse-Argonne offensive. They labored day and night within range of artillery that lit the horizon and shook their switchboards. This group achieved the highest aspiration of nearly every female Signal Corps member: to serve as near the battle as possible. Civilians may find it unconceivable that volunteers actually wanted to risk their lives, but volunteers accepted this as axiomatic. It’s why they signed up.
The Hello Girls returned after helping to bring back two million doughboys, or infantrymen. Although their units were disbanded, they blazed the path for ongoing enlistment of women in the U.S. Army after 1943. Today, females constitute roughly 15 percent of the armed forces. Many aspects of their service seem routine rather than remarkable. Yet their role in combat remains deeply controversial. It challenges our beliefs about what females can or should do.
These same issues arose in World War One, when Signal Corps women first proved that remarkable acts could become routine. Afterwards, the Army refused to recognize women like Merle Egan as veterans. Some men turned their backs, while others saluted them. Revisiting this moment reminds us that institutions sometimes fight innovation. Individuals sometimes compel them to respond, but they usually fail. The experience of the Hello Girls is a microcosm of the ways that governments resisted sex role change in the twentieth century—and into the twenty-first.
It also reveals that change sometimes happens very quickly. In a short period of time, women demolished the barrier to voting that had long seemed insurmountable. Activists deserve much of the glory for amending the U.S. Constitution, but unanticipated events led listeners to hear old arguments in new ways. Technology had already expanded female contributions outside the home and the Great War demanded more. The convergence of feminism with these events gave women the vote and brought some into the U.S. Army. Then, when suffrage and the war were won, and women seem poised to participate in society on a basis of full equality with men, the first wave of feminism dissipated like foam on the beach.
This is wasn’t altogether surprising. People find ways to preserve traditions they value while adjusting to changes they cannot avoid. The most powerful trends are global, making them harder to resist. Emergencies hasten them.
The conflict into which the world tumbled almost by accident in 1914 had this effect, altering expectations globally. Not only did the Russian, Ottoman, and German Empires fragment into a dozen new nations, but cracks also ran under the British, French, and Dutch Empires as diverse peoples claimed a right to popular sovereignty. New republics proliferated: most unsteady, all imperfect. Subjects became citizens. Within older democracies, groups who never had much voice raised them with new conviction.
Women used the conflict to achieve their longstanding demand for full citizenship. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and ten other countries enfranchised females before America. The nation accustomed to congratulating itself as the vanguard of liberal democracy brought up the rear.
The United States was late to the war and women’s suffrage. After President Woodrow Wilson endorsed both causes, he told the U.S. Senate that the vote was vital to the “realization of the objects for which the war is being fought.” He held out the hope that America might organize an enduring democratic peace. But how could it lead the free world if it was behind everyone else? Once entangled with foreign policy, women’s suffrage suddenly became necessary, not discretionary. International credibility required it, and an aspiring world power must have credibility.
We know a great deal about the organizations that marched, sweated, and created a groundswell for female suffrage. We know less about how and why men changed their minds—and changing men’s minds was critical since only they had the legal authority to enfranchise women. More specifically, we have scant information to interpret President Wilson’s most poetic lines to the resistant men of the Senate who, with arms crossed, repeatedly rejected his pleas:
This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women,—services rendered in every sphere,—not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.
The story of the women’s Signal Corps unit allows us to see what Woodrow Wilson and leaders in other democracies—new, old, and about to be demolished—eventually saw. The pioneers who served “upon the very skirts” of the battle help set a new standard of citizenship for women. They accepted the harshest responsibility of democracy: placing one’s life in danger when necessary to defend the citizen-owned republic. Their story, like a missing puzzle piece, completes the picture of how women around the globe not just demanded, but also earned the vote.
Their victory, like most victories, was partial. The Hello Girls went to war at a time when women possessed citizenship only through their fathers and husbands. Merle Egan and her wartime buddies came back to a world in which females possessed new rights, yet some aspects of their status were mysteriously unchanged. This book calls the women “soldiers” even though that label quickly became a source of contention. The U.S. government denied them bonuses, Victory Medals, honorable discharges, and a flag on their coffins. Although Signal Corps veterans embraced the whimsical moniker Hello Girls, they also wanted recognition as soldiers. And so they commenced a new struggle that eventually caught the second wave of feminism. Grace Banker, a 25-year-old Barnard College graduate, led the Hello Girls to France. Decades later, Merle Egan finished their fight.
The Hello Girls explores how Americans mobilized for World War One, telephones transformed the United States, females joined the armed forces, suffragists won the vote, and women and men fought together for justice. It illuminates the battles that defined the twentieth century and still shape our own.
Most Recent Shows
Undocumented families face indefinite detention. Democratic hopefuls face reality. And American Jews face off with the president.
The neurobiologist oversaw one of the largest financial turnarounds in academic medicine.
What's the self-proclaimed "nerd" up to these days? And what will he be up to in the near future?