America’s First Female Soldiers Were WWI Phone Operators, But They Waited 60 Years For Veteran Status
On November 11, 1918, the Armistice Treaty officially shut down hostilities between the Allies and Germany, ending what was the deadliest war the world had seen at that time. In addition to the four million American men who returned home from the battlefields of Europe were 450 American women who served as telephone operators, comprising the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. The women became known as “The Hello Girls” because of their propensity to greet callers, and were sent at the request of General John Pershing to help improve tactical communications on the Western front. Each of the women were bilingual in English and French, and had completed Signal Corps training at Camp Franklin in Maryland. But despite their personal sacrifices and contribution to the war effort, the Hello Girls were not given honorable discharges and veteran status at the end of World War I. They were categorized as civilians because the military’s regulations at the time specified the male gender only.
In 1978, sixty years after the end of WWI, the female Signal Corps operators were given official veteran status. In addition to receiving access to VA medical services and other benefits, the women became known as the first company of female soldiers in America’s history. Sure, there had been women who dressed as men in order to facilitate their placement on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, but never before had there been an entire company of American women, officially sanctioned and trained by the United States government until the Hello Girls.
The female Signal Corps operators were a mere footnote in American history until Elizabeth Cobbs’ 2017 book “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers” offered the public a vivid account of the courageous young women who left home and traversed an ocean to contribute to the war effort.
Their story is the subject of a new musical opening in New York City in November at the 59E59 theatre.
A bill to award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.