Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Hello Girls
Reviewed by Margaret Spratt

The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers

by Elizabeth Cobbs
Harvard University Press, 2017

On the Job at Second Army HQ, Toul

Two hundred and twenty-three women skilled at telephone operating served in France as part of the Signal Corps whose sole purpose was to provide communications for the AEF. The development of new technology transformed this task from semaphore flags to telephone wires and with it created a new role for women in wartime. General Pershing recruited them personally, and Stars and Stripes nicknamed these women soldiers "Hello Girls."

This seems simple enough. There was a need for telephone operators who could speak both English and French. At the time, operators were female. So, along with shipping the equipment across the Atlantic, there was a need to send the operators. But by doing this, Pershing, ignoring the law that stated only men could serve in the army, broke a barrier for American women and created the female soldier. True, nurses also served, but as the author observes "theirs was an altruistic occupation designed to alleviate the ravages of war, not to advance military objectives." The Hello Girls were "soldiers, not angels." (p. 3)

Oleda Christides Helped Lead the 
Postwar Fight for  Veterans Status
This beautifully written volume details the recruitment, training and organization of the operators, the Atlantic passage, and the experiences of women who were assigned all over war-torn France. It relies heavily on the personal diaries of the women who realized that theirs was a unique experience that was making history. (Army regulations prohibited the writing of diaries, but thankfully for historians, many soldiers and others ignored this edict.) Grace Banker, who at the age of 25 led the first unit of Hello Girls to France, documented her experiences faithfully and in great detail. A graduate of Barnard College in New York, she had landed a job at AT&T after graduation where she became an instructor training other operators. An early applicant to the Signal Corps, she was sworn in on 15 January 1918 and sailed for France two months later. While watching the Statue of Liberty fade into the distance of New York Harbor she realized that much responsibility rested on her young shoulders, but as she wrote "I've crossed the Rubicon now. There can be no turning back." (p. 115) She, along with the other recruits, faced the perilous crossing of the North Atlantic with its multitude of German U-boats, the uncertainty of assignment once arriving in France, and the capriciousness of petty military bureaucrats. But for Miss Banker her major concern was how close she could get to the front.

The Hello Girls were an extraordinary group. Many were college graduates, including one young woman who held a master's degree in mathematics from Columbia. Telephone operating was one of the better white-collar occupations for women at the time. Those who went to France passed rigorous mental and physical tests, as well as a French fluency exam. Their loyalty to the United States and the cause of war was of upmost concern to recruiters. They questioned the families, neighbors, former teachers, and others about the character of the applicants and those with "foreign-sounding" names received extra attention. Officials soon discovered that women were motivated to sign up for the same reasons as male recruits. Some confessed their desire for adventure and many were outraged by the German atrocities that had been at the center of so much Allied propaganda. A number of applicants had direct family ties to France and Belgium and wanted to avenge the wrongs perpetrated by the enemy. Although telephone companies had avoided hiring women with accents, the army reasoned that knowledge of French was the most important requisite for service. They believed that "technical skills could be learned on the job; language acquisition took years." Of the women that were sent to France, about 78 percent spoke fluent French, but only 42 percent had prior experience as operators.

Grace Banker's unit arrived in France just as the Germans were launching their spring offensive with stunning success. They advanced toward the Marne River and set up "Big Bertha," [ed. note. this is a common misconception; the gun was actually the Paris Gun] the 47-ton mobile cannon, within firing distance of Paris. The first night the American operators spent in Paris they were awakened by the air raid sirens and hotel employees shouting for them to rush to the basement. The newly arrived Americans were calm and composed. Henrietta Roelofs, the head of the YWCA workers in Paris, reported that "these girls were going to make good" (p. 147). The next day they received their assignments: about a third stayed in Paris; another group went to Tours; and the third were attached to General Pershing's headquarters in Chaumont. They assumed their positions at the switchboards the next day.

The presence of women so close to the battlefront was a new and often controversial development in a war that broke traditions and embraced new technology over and over. Many regular army as well as new recruits were shocked at their involvement in this ultimate male bastion, but others welcomed the efficiency and professionalism of the operators. Grace Banker wrote in her diary that one man had a lump in his throat when he heard her say "Number, please" for the first time.

This history comes to life because of the vivid accounts of its participants. These women knew that they were not only in the middle of the experience of a lifetime but that their very presence "over there" was breaking barriers and creating new gender roles and relationships. Every aspect of their presence, from appearance to behavior, was examined by their superiors and the men they encountered. But as the author points out, their service in France was praised by some and belittled by others. Perhaps most disheartening was the Army's refusal to recognize the women as veterans with all that entails once the war ended.

Many female operators stayed in Europe after Armistice and served in occupied Germany. The last left for America in 1920. Eighteen Signal Corps officers received the Distinguished Service Medal. Grace Banker was one of them, but her status as a veteran was not recognized by the War Department upon her return home. The American Legion would not allow women to be members, so they started their own organization, the Women's Overseas Service League. When League members applied for a charter such as the American Legion received, they were turned down by the U.S. Senate. The journey to be recognized by the U.S. government as veterans had just begun. For decades, former Hello Girls lobbied the War Department and their local representatives and senators. Bill after bill was introduced in committee in Congress, only to be tossed out. Finally, in 1977, Congress passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed, a bill recognizing the veteran status of the female operators of World War I. Thirty-one women survived to see the day. Grace Banker was not one of them.

The Hello Girls of Chaumont, General HQ, AEF

As a women's historian, I am so impressed with the scholarship and efficacy of this volume. It ties together major developments of early 20th-century women's history—the culmination of the seventy year battle for women's suffrage with changing personal and professional roles for women. We see the societal impact of war on the private lives of young women, and we understand how their actions flummoxed a bureaucracy that failed to recognize change. Above all, this study illuminates the power of individual determination. It is no wonder that the Women's Overseas Service League named their newsletter "Carry On!"

Hanging above my desk, once owned by my grandfather who was a young man in 1918, is a YWCA poster of a Hello Girl at her post in front of a switchboard. (Her image graces the book's dust jacket.) Underneath the portrait is the plea "Back Our Girls Over There." This marvelous book tells us why their actions were so significant then and why their history is so important now.

Margaret Spratt


  1. I wish more had been written about their war experience. While still a very good book, I felt like it got lost some of the time while she was discussing the fight for the 19th Amendment and related issues.

    While all of these events were intertwined, I sometimes felt like the Hello Girls service in France was lost among her larger points.

  2. What a vital part of American history!

  3. How prescient to enlist in January 1917, while we were still neutral.

    1. And to leave for France a month before we declared war! Surely a typo.

    2. Thank you both for catching such an obvious error. The first Hello Girls sailed for Europe in March of 1918. The reviewer