Writing with flair and acumen, Cobbs presents a defining account of the U.S. Signal Corps, female Army soldiers that served in 1918 during World War I. Commissioned by General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, these militias didn’t “fire canyons, sink submarines or bayonet invaders.” These women were stationed throughout France to operate the day’s most “advanced” communications technology – the telephone switchboard.
Noted as “bilingual wire experts” who kept Black Jack Pershing in communication with his men, these brave women embedded in war zones were simultaneously welcomed and resented, rejected, mocked and hailed as heroes. Dubbed by Uncle Sam as the “hello girls,” Cobb includes the likes of Grace Banker, the 25-year old chief operator, 29-year old Merle Egan, 18-year old Louise LeBreton and her 16-year old sister, Raymonde, and Berthe Hunt. Merle Egan was later recruited to command the switchboard for the Versailles Peace Conference.
“If America was going to position and command its immense forces, it needed women to handle the advanced technologies at which they were experts,” Cobbs writes. “They would have to withstand torpedoes, cannon fire, influenza and petty-minded bureaucrats in order to send the word over there.”
While “The Hello Girls” heralds the success of the 300 women sent overseas, Cobbs deftly documents the intensity of their work, the sense of pride and responsibility that accompanied wearing Army uniforms as well as the dissension between ranks and the confusion of men and women socializing.
“They were billeted in makeshift quarters established by the YWCA instead of regular barracks,” she writes. “Outside of the regular hierarchy, the women and their male counterparts coped with widespread confusion about rank, saluting and fraternizing.”
As World War I ended, America was forever changed. According to Cobbs, “The war had made women into soldiers and America into a world power.” The week prior to the return of America’s military, President Woodrow Wilson successfully persuaded a segregationist Congress and the U.S. Senate to approve the Susan B. Anthony Amendment – after an “exhaustive” 70-year fight – giving women the right to vote.
And yet, despite the success of bringing more than two million doughboys safely home, the military refused to acknowledge the U.S. Signal Corps as soldiers or veterans eligible for benefits inclusive of bonuses, Victory Medals, honorable discharges, or military funerals. Thus began a 60-year battle carried to triumph in 1970 by a handful of remaining survivors including a now 91-year old Merle Egan.
“This wasn’t what officials promised when they first went looking for women to run the telephone lines that American generals needed in order to command every advance or retreat,” quotes Cobbs. “And Merle Egan was a woman who believed in promises. Little did she know that the next leg of her journey from Army switchboard operator to feminist organizer would take 60 years.”
Overflowing with history, Cobbs successfully weaves a rich narrative that makes every historian proud. “The Hello Girls” exposes the courage and grit of America’s World War I heroines who were denied recognition by the country they served. The colorful story shines a spotlight on their unique contributions to a 1918 America that continue to this day.
“’The Hello Girls’ explores how Americans mobilized for World War I, telephones transformed the United States, females joined the armed forces, suffragists won the vote, and women fought together for justice,” notes Cobbs.
Elizabeth Cobbs is Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A&M University and a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Cobbs has authored seven American History Books and is the winner of the Allen Nevins Prize. Her novel, Broken Promises: A Novel of the Civil War won the San Diego Book Award.