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

Like Father, like Daughter: Women Who Worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad

238WHM Women Taking the Place of Men in Great Falls (National Archives)

During World War I, many women joined the workforce both for the economic opportunity and out of a sense of patriotism. The War Department cataloged this photo of two women working on the Great Northern Railway near Great Falls, c. 1918. National Archives, Records of War Department, General and Special Staffs (165-WW-595-D-14).

When the Northern Pacific Railroad established its Central Division maintenance facility at Livingston, Montana, the town became a magnet for men seeking jobs on operational and maintenance crews. At the start of the twentieth century, one-sixth of the town’s population worked for the railroad. Most of these workers were recent immigrants to the United States. Later, during the two world wars, many of their daughters also found good-paying work with Northern Pacific, one of the few employers in the state that paid women equally to men.

One of the first women employees was Natalina Indendi, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy when she was five years old, in about 1905. Her father had emigrated three years earlier, but the rest of the family originally were denied passage because her brother was blind in one eye. When they were finally permitted to leave Italy, they went straight from the emigration office to the boat without a single piece of luggage. “We were supposed to meet Dad in Chicago. . . . [But] the day we landed in New York he took off for Montana, because they were building up a crew [to extend a railway line from Livingston] to Wilsall.” Natalina’s mother found a job in a garment factory in Chicago. As soon as he could, her father sent money, and the family moved to Livingston. Continue reading