Who Were They?
When the United States Army entered WWI they soon realized that they had a problem. They needed experienced operators to run the switchboards that had become the primary source of communication between commanders in the field while in Europe. Army commanders realized that the enlisted men they had trained to do the job just weren’t able to gain the experience and efficiency that they needed. So the higher-ups decided to recruit some of the women who did it professionally.
Hello Girls by Elizabeth Cobbs balances two different stories happening at the same time: the fight for women’s suffrage and the story of the Hello Girls. These storylines are not quite as separate as they might appear but intertwine as they become a part of the vanguard of women who were gradually moving out of their traditional roles. The Hello Girls were not alone in this, as they joined the women who were doing office jobs in the Navy and Marines before them. The Hello Girls were recruited for a specific need the Army had.
These women were interviewed and tested (in the beginning they were tested in their French proficiency and the army was stationed in France and they were using some of France’s existing telephone lines.) then finally shipped overseas to Europe where they faced their toughest test, proving that they were indispensable, which they ultimately did. But including women into military routines was fraught with challenges. What was their rank? Eventually, they decided that they were about the same rank as a West Point Cadet below all the officers but still above the enlisted men. When they were ordered overseas where were they supposed to sleep? How are they going to remain virtuous amongst all those men? (they decided that the YWCA would provide older women to chaperone.)
Meanwhile, the battle for women’s suffrage was ongoing in the United States while the “Hello Girls” were proving their competence overseas. Woodrow Wilson, the President at the time provided the women’s suffrage movement with an important ally. He had reversed his opinion on women’s suffrage and was helping women gain the vote. This book relates how the Hello Girls and the fight for women’s suffrage were related. That the “Hello Girls” went far in convincing many reluctant men that women were just as willing to fight for their country and could be just as patriotic as men.
The Hello Girls followed the troops wherever they went. They and the Signal Corps were the pieces that connected all the members of the army as they were the ones providing the essential communications. This included being on the front lines with commanders in order to connect the troops with each other. A highly important task in the midst of a confusing battlefield.
After the war, the women who had served as part of the war were astonished to find out that they were not considered to be part of the army but instead civilian consultants. They were, therefore, denied the benefits that were available to army veterans. This led to a battle with the army that would not be won till 1978 when they were finally recognized as veterans.
What I Thought
I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a book that tells the story of the women who played an important role in one of the most important events in the twentieth century. A rather forgotten piece of history that demonstrated that women weren’t content to be sidelined and patiently wait for their men to return, but were ready to do their part for their country. Because of this, this book is an incredibly important account of American history.
I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the parallel stories of the “battle” for women’s suffrage on the Homefront and the women who were participating in the war overseas. The two stories intertwine more than you might think. As some men questioned women’s contribution to the military to mean that they were not able to fully participate as citizens since one responsibility of a citizen is to aide in the defense of the country. So I think the author made a good decision to incorporate both stories because sometimes I think that history can be a little too linear that the history we learn in school doesn’t do a good job in describing how women’s suffrage wasn’t just by the women with the signs but also the women who were learning to do things outside of the prescribed roles.
I thought the writing was concise and readable and not overly inundated with jargon or dates, but tells in a clear informative manner the story of these remarkable women who proved to the world that women could serve their country with the same dedication as men. I thought that this book told the story of women who were doing remarkable things and serving their country whose story has been largely untold.