The role of women in the First World War went unrecognized for decades, and until only recently, there have not been many initiatives towards recognizing the contributions of women in the Great War.
Soon, though, the wartime contributions of hundreds of women, who played integral roles in the coordination of the French and American efforts in the First World War will be honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award that Congress gives out.
After more than a century, a pair of United States senators introduced legislation to officially award the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Hello Girls.” These 400 women served as switchboard operators at command posts and were connected to the United States Army Signal Corps.
More than Doughnut Dollies
The requirements for the job were that the switchboard applicant had to be bilingual, and be able and willing to serve as an intermediary between the allied forces to allow for successful communication with the forces on the front.
Sadly, it took sixty years for the United States government to recognize the contributions of these women, and see them as veterans. They were considered civilian contract employees, even though they were sworn into the U.S. Signal Corps, wore mandatory army-issued uniforms and were subject to the rules and regulations of military discipline.
Merle Egan Anderson, the woman responsible for the initiative to gain official recognition for their service, doesn’t understand it in the slightest. According to Anderson, they signed no contracts, served in a war zone under military orders, and were constantly reminded of their responsibilities as ‘Army women.’
The Hello Girls were responsible for translation and interpretation between American and French troops, and also for relaying messages regarding troop movements and supplies, and these would often be in military code.
During the final Allied push of the war, a group of operators serving near the front during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive refused to leave their positions even after their barracks caught fire, and went right back to work when the flames were finally extinguished.
“The Hello Girls stepped up to the plate and got the job done, and they played an important role in our nation’s history,” said Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican Senator from Nevada. He is co-sponsoring the bill with Montana Democrat Jon Tester. “They pioneered the way for female veterans, and like all of our nation’s service members, they should be recognized for their bravery and contributions.”
Elizabeth Cobbs, who wrote a biography on the women, called the honorees the nation’s first women soldiers and stated that they occupy an important spot in United States history as true pioneers. She has argued that their quest for the recognition of their service has assisted in the advance of women’s rights across the nation. Yet ironically, their work is still relatively unknown, especially by the general public.
Tester and Heller are working with the relatives and descendants of the women, who are all now ceased, in order to highlight their contributions and push for the congressional honor. According to Carolyn Timbie, the granddaughter of Grace Banker, the unit’s chief operator, the story was hidden away for a century. For her, the notion that they could be honored for their service in 2018 with a Congressional Gold Medal is quite overwhelming.
Tester stated that the women swore the Army oath as a requirement for their service, and historical records have revealed that they were both faster and more accurate than any enlisted man at providing the connections required between military leadership and those men on the front.
Tester says that these women were trailblazers for women on the French front lines and that the Congressional Gold Medal will both honor their service and aid in their struggle for recognition. It’s important to realize that women’s contributions during the Great War were more than taking over men’s jobs at home.
As of yet, no timetable has been revealed regarding hearings or legislative consideration of the proposed measure.