Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl”

A row of women sitting at a switchboard. One woman supervisor is standing behind them.

Initially the Signal Corps only accepted women fluent in French. Merle Egan joined after the military lifted the language requirement. Pictured here are some of Egan’s Signal Corps colleagues, operating a switchboard in Chaumont, France. Photo from Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, p. 171

The story of women’s military service during World War II is relatively well known; less familiar is the story of the women who served during World War I, sometimes on or near the front lines. During World War I, over twenty-five thousand women worked for American forces or support organizations in Europe. These women performed integral work and helped chip away at gender stereotypes, paving the way for the more famous WACs and WAVEs of World War II.

Among those serving during World War I was Merle Egan of Helena, a telephone switchboard operator for the Army Signal Corps. A vitally important technology to U.S. military operations, telephones allowed officers to communicate across battlefields, between dispersed units, and with other allied forces. Unfortunately, war had devastated the French telephone system, so in 1917, when the U.S. Army was building up its forces in France, Gen. John Pershing ordered the construction of an American telephone system throughout the country.

The creation of a military telephone system opened up new opportunity for female service since civilian telephone operators were almost exclusively female. As Col. Parker Hitt, chief signal officer of the U.S. First Army, explained: “[A]n Army telephone central would have to have American women operators to be a success. Our experience in Paris with the untrained and undisciplined English-speaking French women operators, and experience elsewhere with the willing but untrained men operators was almost disastrous.” Thus, in November 1917, General Pershing requested that the War Department deploy one hundred French-speaking American women with telephone operating experience. Thousands of women applied and the first of these “Hello Girls” traveled overseas in the spring of 1918. Continue reading

Number, Please: Women Telephone Operators

Switchboard operators at work in Helena in 1906 included chief operator Anna Bennett (standing) and, from left to right, Elizabeth Hartwig, Irene LaSalle, Susie Hildebrand, Elma Barnes, Tillie Gillan, Susette Amacker, Kate J. Merrill, Rose Lacking, and Jennie Stoehr.

Switchboard operators at work in Helena in 1906 included chief operator Anna Bennett (standing) and, from left to right, Elizabeth Hartwig, Irene LaSalle, Susie Hildebrand, Elma Barnes, Tillie Gillan, Susette Amacker, Kate J. Merrill, Rose Lacking, and Jennie Stoehr. MHS Photo Archives PAc 75-43 f26

The first telephone arrived in Montana in 1876, the same year Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention, and by the 1890s many Montana cities had telephone exchanges. According to Ellen Arguimbau, author of “From Party Lines and Barbed Wire: A History of Telephones in Montana,” early telephones needed to be connected directly by wire. To facilitate that connection, telephone companies established exchanges, staffed almost entirely by young female operators. “The caller telephoned the operator and asked to be connected to someone. The operator then plugged the wire into the call recipient’s slot.”

Arguimbau describes the working conditions of these female employees in “Number, please,” originally published in Montana The Magazine of Western History and excerpted below.

Often a maze of cords and sockets, switchboards were attended by one operator in a small exchange or by a roomful of operators in the larger towns, usually all young women. According to a 1902 U.S. Census Bureau report: “For many years it has been recognized that operators’ work in telephone exchanges attracts a superior class of women. It has been demonstrated beyond all doubt that the work of operating is better handled by women than by men or boys and that trained and well-bred women operators perform the most satisfactory service.” Continue reading