On March 19, 1918, Miss Hortense Levy of Philadelphia received a telegraph instructing her to report for training in telephony, also known as telephone operation. According to historian Rebecca Robbins Raines in Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the first unit of female telephone operators to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris in March 1918. Approximately 200 female telephone operators ultimately served in operating units in the First, Second, and Third Army Headquarters. The women worked in Paris and dozens of other locations throughout France and England. Nicknamed the “Hello Girls,” these women worked long hours, often under combat conditions.
In one instance, the Army forcefully evacuated the Female Telephone Operators Unit of the First Army Headquarters, because the women refused to desert their posts even after their building caught fire. The women, after readmittance to the building, restored operations within an hour. They subsequently won a commendation from the chief signal officer of the First Army. Grace Banker, chief operator, even received a Distinguished Service Medal for her wartime service.
WWI Chief Signal Officer Major General George Owen Squier later cited women’s “unquestioned superiority” as switchboard operators and their value in freeing men for the fighting front. The Report of the Chief Signal Officer, 1919, declared that, “The use of women operators throughout the entire war was decidedly a success…”
The female operators returned home after the war with little recognition and no veterans’ benefits. Only decades later, in 1978, did legislation award the operators veterans’ status. Despite the regrettable lag in official recognition, proponents of the gender integration of the Army during WWII often cited the Signal Corps’ successful employment of the “Hello Girls.”