A month ago, my brother, who is an attorney in northern California and spends a lot of time in his car, heard an interview on the radio with Elizabeth Cobbs, author of the book, The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers (Harvard University Press, 2017). You can listen to this interview at: https://ww2.kqed.org/forum/2018/01/03/the-hello-girls-chronicles-patriotic-women-soldiers-of-wwi/. A full review of the book is available at: https://www.npr.org/2017/04/06/522596006/the-hello-girls-chronicles-the-women-who-fought-for-america-and-for-recognition.
Since he has long been familiar with my passion for women’s history, he quickly ordered the book and sent it to me. Thanks, Chuck!
The Hello Girls tells a fascinating, if little known, story that cuts across various topics in women’s history, communications history, and military history. After the US entered World War I in 1918, two hundred and twenty-three women became members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and were sent to France. They were responsible for connecting military leaders’ telephone calls through switchboards as the battles raged on around them—to the tune of 150,000 calls a day and at the torrid pace of one call every 10 seconds. Because it had taken the doughboys who had first served as telephone operators 60 seconds to connect calls, the Army turned to recruiting women who spoke French and English as members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
This chapter in military history dovetails with the better-known history of women’s suffrage and the larger story of women’s lack of recognition for their contributions to American society on many fronts. President Woodrow Wilson’s eventual support for the 19th Amendment, a surprising position given his politics, developed largely because of women’s contributions to the war, including but not confined to the Signal Corps, as well as the international pressure of many other nations, including England and Russia, that were granting women suffrage at this time.
Along with telling an engaging and very personal tale of the contributions these women made to the war effort, Cobbs also chronicles how long it took for the US Government to acknowledge their contributions as “veterans” of the war. The valiant efforts of one of the “Hello Girls,” Merle Egan, finally brought about recognition of these women’s full veterans’ status in 1977, six decades after their service ended, when President Jimmy Carter signed a document supporting the official change. Egan was 91.
In the Epilogue, Cobbs wraps up her story by commenting on today’s ongoing “disrespect” for women, so fully on display in the 2016 presidential election and continuing to manifest itself in myriad ways as I write this review. As Cobb concludes her book: “The fight for justice continues.”
-- Dr. Margaret Crocco
Chairperson, Department of Teacher Education
Michigan State University