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World War I: Years Later. It was a measure of how desperate the country was for soldiers and personnel to assist with operations stateside, and American women seized the opportunity to prove their patriotism. Initially, they worked as clerks and journalists. But by lateGeneral John Pershing declared he needed women on the frontlines for an even more crucial role: to operate the switchboards that linked up telephones across the front.

At the start of the 20th century, 80 percent of all telephone operators were women, and they could generally connect five calls in the time it took a man to do one. This is the story of how America's first women soldiers helped win World War I, earned the vote, and fought the U. Inthe U. Army al Corps sent women to France. They were masters of the latest technology: the telephone switchboard.

General John Pershing, commander o When the United States declared war, the al Corps had only 11 officers and 10 men in its Washington office, and an additional 1, enlisted men around the country. The Army needed more operators, bilingual ones especially, and it needed them quickly. Fortunately, women were quick to respond. In the first week of Decemberbefore the War Department even had the chance to print out applications, they received 7, letters from women enquiring about the first positions in the al Corps.

Eventually American women were sent across the ocean to work at Army switchboards across Europe. To learn more about these women and the role of telephones in the war, Smithsonian. These are obscure people. I went to the Seattle Bar Association, contacted them, asked can you get me in touch with him? I worked with them for several years to get [them recognized by Congress]. He had a box that was memorabilia the women shared with him. One of the first things he showed me was a charm-bracelet-size pair of binoculars. French pornography of the s, it was very tasteful.

These were the things the women brought back from WWI, which also gives you a peek into their own mindset, their sense of humor, their willingness to laugh at their circumstances and themselves. The way this worked in WWI was the telephone was the key instrument in the war.

Telegraphs operated on Morse code and it was a slower process. The radios were similar.

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To get a radio field unit required three mules to carry it. The al could be plucked out of the air and you could trace where it came from. Telephones were secure and immediate; they were the primary way men communicated. In WWI, telephones then were called candlestick phones.

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You lifted up the speaker tube and you would tell them who you wanted to talk to, and then every call had to be connected manually. Women were really the best doing this job. General Pershing insisted when he got over, they needed bilingual women [to operate the switch boards]. The way telephones worked with long distance was an operator talked to another operator, who talked to another, and the call was relayed across the multiple lines.

The U. But when they first got there they were interacting with French lines and French women. These were generals and operators who had to communicate across lines with their counterpart in other cultures. An American officer might not speak French, and a French officer might not speak English, so the women also acted as simultaneous translation. They were not only constantly fielding simultaneous calls, they were translating, too. It was this extremely high-paced operation that involved a variety of tasks.

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They were sweeping the boards, translating, even doing things like giving the time. Artillery kept calling them and saying, can I have the time operator? The women were really critical.

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One night Bertha Hunt [a member of the al Corps] was on the lines and wrote about just talking to men on the front lines. I think sexism falls away fastest under fire because people realize they just have to rely on each other.

It created this enormous camaraderie and mutual respect. At the same time as women were going to war, the suffrage movement was coming to a head in the U. How did these two things go together? Worldwide, the war was the thing that enabled women in multiple countries to get the vote. In the U. Are we going to be last to learn this lesson?

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The vote should be given to people who are willing to give their lives if necessary. You follow the journeys of several women in the book. Are there any that you felt an especially close connection to? My two heroines are Grace Banker and Merle Egan. Everybody all over the U. I said to myself, I wonder why she would do this? I wonder if maybe she liked history? She had an eye to history, and I love that about her.

Grace is just this firecracker. With Merle Egan, I found it so poignant that throughout the decades, this lonely fight [for recognition], she keeps it up. Her files and her letters and her campaign intensified when she was in her 80s.

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By this time the second wave of feminism had come up. She comes back to the U. What was that like for them? Army for 60 years as for heading up the switchboard for the Versailles conference. But the Army took in a much smaller group of people, only women altogether, and they hated the idea of inducting anybody. You never took an oath.

And there were multiple oaths in the files for them. One of them, their leader Grace Banker, won the Distinguished Service Medal awarded by Pershing, which was the top medal for officer at that time. Especially Merle Egan. There were women who died, two who lost their lives in influenza, and several were disabled. Another had tuberculosis. Do you think things have improved since WWI? I think there has been a lot of change and there remains a lot of resistance.

One of their jobs was to tow targets for other soldiers to shoot at. Remembering and forgetting that women are real people, full citizens, is something that it seems we encounter in every generation. People have to be reminded, the fight has to be taken up again, but at a different point. Editor's Note, April 5, The article ly misstated that General John Pershing needed women on the frontlines at the end of Lorraine Boissoneault is a contributing writer to SmithsonianMag.

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She has ly written for The Atlantic, Salon, Nautilus and others. Post a Comment.

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