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The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers

The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers

by Elizabeth Cobbs

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This is the story of how America’s first women soldiers helped win World War I, earned the vote, and fought the U.S. Army. In 1918, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent 223 women to France. They were masters of the latest technology: the telephone switchboard. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, demanded female “wire


This is the story of how America’s first women soldiers helped win World War I, earned the vote, and fought the U.S. Army. In 1918, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent 223 women to France. They were masters of the latest technology: the telephone switchboard. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, demanded female “wire experts” when he discovered that inexperienced doughboys were unable to keep him connected with troops under fire. Without communications for even an hour, the army would collapse.

While suffragettes picketed the White House and President Woodrow Wilson struggled to persuade a segregationist Congress to give women of all races the vote, these competent and courageous young women swore the Army oath. Elizabeth Cobbs reveals the challenges they faced in a war zone where male soldiers welcomed, resented, wooed, mocked, saluted, and ultimately celebrated them. They received a baptism by fire when German troops pounded Paris with heavy artillery. Some followed “Black Jack” Pershing to battlefields where they served through shelling and bombardment. Grace Banker, their 25-year-old leader, won the Distinguished Service Medal.

The army discharged the last Hello Girls in 1920, the same year Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment granting the ballot. When the operators sailed home, the army unexpectedly dismissed them without veterans’ benefits. They began a sixty-year battle that a handful of survivors carried to triumph in 1979. With the help of the National Organization for Women, Senator Barry Goldwater, and a crusading Seattle attorney, they triumphed over the U.S. Army.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Cobbs (American Umpire), chair in American history at Texas A&M, examines the Signal Corps’s female telephone operators during WWI in the first full-length scholarly work of its kind. Her fine study enriches our understanding of America’s participation in its first major European war by focusing on important historical actors who are typically sidelined in military accounts. Under Gen. John Pershing’s orders, 223 bilingual female operators—dubbed Hello Girls—were sent to Europe to handle communications among the Allies. Hundreds of women had rushed to apply, eager to demonstrate their patriotism and claim equal citizenship. Cobbs discusses the final phase of the women’s suffrage campaign to highlight the connections between military service and citizenship. This information is sometimes awkwardly inserted, diverting attention from the more compelling story of the Hello Girls’ contributions to the success of the Allied war effort. Grace Banker, a 25-year-old chief operator, efficiently worked the switchboard during the Meuse-Argonne battle. Merle Egan, stationed at Services of Supply headquarters, facilitated communications to guarantee the army received necessary supplies. After the war, the Hello Girls had to fight for formal recognition of their service; the army attempted to classify them as civilian contract employees and deny them veterans’ benefits. Aficionados of WWI history and women’s history will appreciate Cobbs’s book. Illus. (Apr.)
Booklist - Carolyn Mulac
Cobbs shines a spotlight on the unique contributions of a group of remarkable American women, in the spirit of Hidden Figures (2016), in a book that belongs in every American-history collection.
NPR - Glen Weldon
In the crisply written The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers, Elizabeth Cobbs details exactly what was asked of these women during the war, and reveals, with an authoritative, dispassionate, this-was-some-self-evident-nonsense lucidity, the dismaying extent to which their country failed them when it was over…Smartly, she also walks us through the sundry and simultaneous technical demands of switchboard operating, noting that women could connect five calls in the time it took a man to complete one. Cobbs is particularly good at spotlighting how closely the service of military women like the Hello Girls was tied to the success of the suffrage movement.
Christian Science Monitor - Steve Donoghue
Utterly delightful…It’s a little-known side-story of the war, but it’s not a little story: In Cobbs’s skillful handling, it becomes a big, multilayered tale of courage and long-delayed justice…Cobbs very adroitly weaves the story of the Signal Corps into that larger story of American women fighting for the right to vote, but it’s the warm, fascinating job she does bringing her cast of The Hello Girls to life that gives this book its memorable charisma…[These women] fought for years to gain the recognition they deserved as the forerunners of all women serving in the U.S. armed forces. This terrific book pays them a long-warranted tribute.
Times Higher Education - June Purvis
Elizabeth Cobbs draws on a range of official documents, as well as letters and diaries, to tell the fascinating story of the forgotten women telephone operators who were a critical part of the war effort…The Hello Girls makes vividly visible a group of women who, until now, have been unjustly hidden.
Cokie Roberts
What an eye-opener! The Hello Girls tells the lost story of the women who braved the war in Europe to provide essential communications between U.S. commanders and fighters in the field. Cobbs unearths the original letters and diaries of these forgotten heroines and weaves them into a fascinating narrative with energy and zest.
David M. Kennedy
Writing with panache and acumen, Cobbs tells the colorful story of the women who served in the Army's Signal Corps in World War I, while opening fresh perspectives on communications technology, the nature of modern warfare, the nation's treatment of veterans, and the never-ending struggle of women for their full rights as citizens. The Hello Girls turns a good tale into a great tool for understanding some of history's grandest themes.
Ellen Fitzpatrick
This splendidly written book reveals the bravery and grit of the nation's first women soldiers. During World War I, they were deployed to France, only to be denied recognition as veterans upon return. Their remarkable stories come alive in Cobbs's wonderfully absorbing narrative as does the world of contradictions in which they lived and served.
Library Journal
★ 02/15/2017
Cobbs (history, Texas A&M Univ.; American Umpire) shines a new light on the history of suffrage and women's rights in the United States, using as a lens the servicewomen enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I. Dubbed the Hello Girls, these women operated the telephone switchboards that facilitated communication between Allied forces and worked, in President Woodrow Wilson's words, "wherever men have worked and on the very skirts and edges of the battle itself." In this groundbreaking work, Cobbs weaves the trials and triumphs of America's first female soldiers (although they wouldn't win the right to claim that distinction until 1979) with the fight for women's rights and the rising waves of feminism. Although presenting a story of national interest and international impact, the author manages to keep the story personal and relatable by focusing on the experiences of the women in the Signal Corps. VERDICT Clearly well-researched and well-written in a tone that both scholars and armchair historians alike will find engaging, this book is highly recommended to readers seeking new material on World War I, American history, military history, women's history, and gender studies.—Crystal Goldman, Univ. of California, San Diego Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
As members of the Army's Signal Corps, women played a critical role in World War I.In an informative history of women's military work, Cobbs (Chair, American History/Texas A&M Univ.; The Hamilton Affair, 2016, etc.) focuses on more than 200 telephone operators who supported combat soldiers in Europe soon after the United States entered the war in 1917. For the first time in war, the telephone became the essential form of communication, requiring skilled workers to nimbly manipulate "jacks, sockets, ringers, and buzzers on the boards of busy switching stations." In the U.S., this job fell to women, who, claims the author, "may possess advantages over males in multitasking." Since they did not have advantages over males in finding jobs, many opted to become operators, which paid better than most white-collar employment available to women. Besides needing nimble fingers, the Army also needed bilingual operators to communicate with the French military. These volunteers vastly outnumbered those with telephone experience, and they learned technical skills on the job. Closely following a handful of Signal Corps members, Cobbs reveals that they joined partly out of patriotism, partly to seek adventure. All believed they were being inducted into the Army, following the precedent of females welcomed into the Navy and Marines. The Army, though, adamantly maintained that women's enlistment into the military was "unwise and highly undesirable." Although outfitted in uniforms, which they purchased themselves, and adhering to military hierarchy, they discovered, after the war ended, that they were not considered to be veterans and not entitled to any postwar benefits. "They had not been soldiers," the Army insisted, "no matter how many officers had told them, ‘You're in the army now.' " The Army's refusal persisted until 1979, when 31 survivors finally won a lawsuit. The author's story of these women's recruitment, war work, and postwar frustration is stronger than her argument tying their service to the achievement of women's suffrage, whose political supporters had complicated, often self-serving motives. A fresh, well-researched contribution to military and gender history.

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Meet the Author

Elizabeth Cobbs is Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A&M University and a Research Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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