FORT BENNING, Ga. (March 15, 2018) -- "We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women, -- services rendered in every sphere, -- not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself."
Quoting President Woodrow Wilson, Col. Jacqueline Emanuel, the Maneuver Center of Excellence Staff Judge Advocate, used the former president's quote in her speech during Fort Benning's National Women's History Month Observance March 15 at the Benning Club to emphasized women's contributions to the Armed Services throughout the years.
This year's theme, "Nevertheless, She Persisted," focused on women who continued to fight against all odds to achieve women's rights and equality. For her speech, Emanuel focused on the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, a group of American women who served as switchboard operators in World War I and became known as the Hello Girls.
"The genesis of the Hello Girls began in 1917 shortly after the United States decided to enter World War I," said Emanuel. "At that time the telephone was a key instrument in the war, and when the first Americans arrived in France, they found out that after years of war, the telephone system in France was in a really bad state. They also had trouble understanding the French operators.''
As a result, Gen. John J. Pershing, who was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, asked for 100 bilingual telephone operators who spoke French and English. The request prompted the Department of War to send out a call to action and advertise in newspapers.
"More than 7,000 women responded," Emanuel said. "In the end, the Army initially selected 150 women, sent them off for special training at AT&T, which was then the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and those women also underwent military training."
The women were also required to pass physical and psychological exams as well as security background investigations.
"The Army also held an additional 400 women in reserve, and by time the war ended on November 11, 1918, a total of about 450 women had actually undergone the training, and of those 450, 223 of them had been sent abroad," Emanuel said.
The contributions of the switchboard operators did not go unnoticed as they were frequently visited by Pershing who continuously praised them for their efforts, and at the war's end, the Hello Girls were ordered to Paris to support the peace talks while others went with the Occupation Force to Germany to assist with communications there.
Despite their support and efforts, however, they were denied veteran's status by the Department of War.
"The women were told they had been working as civilians with the Army and had never actually been Soldiers," said Emanuel. "The War Department's rationale was that since all Army regulations were worded in the male gender, the women could not have been Soldiers."
Nevertheless, one persisted.
Merle Egan Anderson, a former Hello Girl, led the fight for almost 60 years to get recognition for the switchboard operators, and in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law giving these women veteran status.
Emanuel said in researching a topic to speak about for the observance, she was moved after learning about the Hello Girls and Anderson's struggle for their recognition.
"If you'd ask me two and half weeks ago who are the Hello Girls, I had no clue," Emanuel said. "But I feel like just going through the process of figuring out what I was going to talk about and doing the research, I have to say I was inspired by it, and it made me want to learn more, do more and be better."
Emmanuel closed by charging the audience with remembering the importance of the monthly observances and attending them.
"It's not just about showing up and sitting here and listening to whatever the speaker is talking about, it's really having a sense about what we're about every day when we are here performing our duties," Emanuel said. "These women, when they reported to France, saw themselves as having a role in history. They took their job seriously. They went about it with gusto. Having that focus of our importance in history helps to keep us on the right path."
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