IN 1917, Secretary of War Newton Baker disliked the idea of female workers on Army bases so intensely that he didn’t even want to build toilets for them. They might stick around.
Yet many adventurous and patriotic young women longed to defend their country and join in the great campaign to serve democracy and save France. If they wanted to serve in uniform, however, they could not merely perform as well as men. They had to perform better.
Gen. John Pershing sailed for France the month after Congress declared war. He made sure to stuff the ship’s hold not only with standard gear, but also the newest technologies.
Military tackle had undergone a revolution in the preceding years. Planes had replaced horses. Trucks had overtaken mule trains. Telephone wires had outrun flares and semaphore flags.
Telephones were then the only military technology in which America enjoyed superiority over its allies and enemies. Invented in the United States, they reached farther, conveyed more messages, and reproduced sound with greater fidelity than telephones anywhere else.
When the British commanding officer in World War I used an American-built line from France to England, he exclaimed, “Would you believe it? They actually recognized my voice in London!”
Commands to advance or retreat were given by phone during the Great War. If America was going to position its immense armies effectively, it needed experts to handle this critical technology. Without communications for even an hour, Brig. Gen. George Squier wrote, “the whole military machine would collapse.”
At home, telephone operating was segregated. Female operators connected nearly every call made. Their job was demanding. With hands darting like hummingbirds, operators connected hundreds of impatient customers per hour.
When Pershing arrived in France, he found male recruits ill-suited for this work. They were inefficient and prone to frustration at rude callers. Male recruits required 60 seconds on average to connect a call. Women took 10 seconds.
Few doughboys also possessed the language skills necessary to cooperate with foreign operators on long-distance connections. They could not parlez vous. So Pershing departed from tradition to recruit uniformed women for his Expeditionary Forces.
Before most doughboys arrived, bilingual American women came to France, withstanding torpedoes, cannon fire, influenza and aerial bombardment to send the word, over there.
Most worked behind the lines. A small group followed Pershing from the Battle of St. Mihiel to the Meuse-Argonne. Women ran switchboards 24 hours a day within range of artillery that lit the horizon and shook their equipment. Their leader was Grace Banker, a 25-year-old graduate of Barnard College.
Their efforts, along with those of Army nurses, shaped another great debate: whether to grant women the vote. The suffrage movement had struggled for 70 years. Founders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton died without seeing the effect of their life’s work.
World War I altered expectations about citizenship 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. Within older democracies, groups that never had much voice raised theirs with new conviction.
By war’s end, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden and 10 other countries had enfranchised females. Accustomed to congratulating itself as the vanguard of democracy, the United States found itself bringing up the rear.
President Woodrow Wilson told the reluctant U.S. Senate that the vote was vital to the “realization of the objects for which the war is being fought.” He hoped America might organize an enduring peace through a League of Nations. But how could the United States lead the free world if it was behind everyone else?
“Are we alone to refuse to learn the lesson?” the president asked. “We must either conform or ... resign the leadership of liberal minds to others.”
At war’s end, Grace Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal. She was the only female in the U.S. Signal Corps to receive the honor, granted to 18 out of 16,000 male officers.
Yet when she and other women returned home, the Army denied them veterans’ bonuses, victory medals and even a flag on their coffins. In 1919, the Hello Girls commenced a new struggle that eventually caught the second wave of feminism. In 1979, 31 survivors received their Victory Medals at last.
Reform at home laid the basis for women’s suffrage. World War I secured it. The Hello Girls fought on both fronts.
Elizabeth Cobbs is a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is the author of seven books, including “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.”