published: September 2019

The Hello Girls

Women, war & the right to vote

by M. Diane Bairstow

In September 1919, three more states, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Utah, approved the 19th Amendment. The suffragettes now had 17 of the 36 states needed for ratification.

America’s involvement in World World War 1 lasted a little more than a year, from April 6, 1917 to Nov. 11, 1919, but the impact on women would resonate for decades to come. The number of women working outside the home doubled as they replaced men in factories, on railways, in banks, on police forces and fire departments. They were nurses, relief workers and ambulance drivers, serving as civilians and in the military. More than 400 were killed in action. Lena Sutcliffe Higbee became the first woman to receive the Navy Cross for her achievement in leading the fledgling U.S. Navy Nurse Corps through WW1.

The Hello Girls

A group of women essential to the war effort were the “Hello Girls,” formally known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. In 1917, American telephone technology was far superior to that of the Allies and was indispensable in winning the war. The army discovered that female switchboard operators could connect 5 calls in the time it took a man to connect one, and so they enlisted 450 female bi-lingual switchboard operators and sent them to the front, often only a few miles away from the bloodiest battles of the war.

They connected 150,000 calls per day. They often had to translate between American and French officers and were frequently called by artillery units asking for the time. Several Hello Girls were at the switchboard in an Army barracks in Souilly France during a shell attack in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive when their building caught on fire. Refusing to leave their post, they kept critical lines of communication open as soldiers worked to put out the flames. For their bravery, they received special citations from the army.

These American heroes were sworn in, wore uniforms and were subject to all Army regulations. However, when they came home, they were denied an honorable discharge and veteran status, because they were not men. Veteran status included benefits, medical care, commendations, military funerals and the right to wear their uniforms. Finally, in 1970 Jimmy Carter signed a bill retroactively giving them an honorable discharge. Only 70 of the women were alive to receive it.

WW1 & the right to vote.

Women’s active participation in supporting the war effort convinced many Americans that the country’s female citizens should have the right to vote. Woodrow Wilson spoke for the suffragettes on the Senate floor, saying “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

Two-thirds of the females in the military report sexual harassment and discrimination.

Today, women are almost fully integrated into the military but are still in the minority. They comprise between 18-20% of the Army, Navy and Air Force, but only 8% of the Marines. Yet, integration isn’t equality. A poll conducted by Stars and Stripes magazine reported the 68% of military women say they have experienced discrimination and sexual assault or harassment. Navy Captain Lory Manning, director of government operations for the Service Women’s Action Network, told the Daily Beast she was surprised the numbers were so low. “I was in the military for 25 years,” she told the reporter, “and I don’t know a woman from that entire time who didn’t experience both discrimination and harassment.”

The brass ceiling

There are a few success stories of military women who cracked the “the brass ceiling.” In 2008, Ann Elizabeth Dunwoody received her fourth star, becoming the nation’s first female four-star general. In 2016, Barack Obama named Air Force General Lori Robinson to command the U.S. Northern Command (NORAD), making her the first women to head a U.S. combatant command. On August 2 of this year, Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield became the first female leader of the U.S. Naval War College.

Glass ceilings and brass ceilings are cracked, and a few women squeeze through, but they are far from broken. Persistence is crucial.

For more information on the Hello Girls read The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers (Harvard University Press) by Elizabeth Cobbs.