<byline>By Greg Daugherty<byline>
As their numbers grew, women operators became a powerful force—for workers' rights and even serving overseas in WWI.
In the earliest days of the telephone, people couldn’t dial one another directly. They needed an intermediary—a telephone operator—to manually relay their call on a central switchboard connected to subscribers’ wires. It was a crucial new service that helped a revolutionary new technology spread widely to the masses.
The idea originated in April 1877, when 40-year-old George W. Coy attended a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell. In it, the famous inventor demonstrated how he could converse with two colleagues—one 27 miles away, the other 38 miles—using a device he’d patented just the year before: the telephone. Coy, a Civil War veteran who worked in the telegraph business, soon made a deal with Bell to set up the first telephone exchange in the United States, a central switchboard that allowed anyone with a telephone to call or be called by anyone else who had one.
Coy’s telephone exchange, in New Haven, Connecticut, opened in 1878, with all of 21 clients, including the local police, post office and a drug store. Today, Coy is often cited as the world’s first telephone operator. But while Coy devised the switchboard for the exchange (improvising some parts using wire from women’s bustles!), he hired two boys to operate it. Louis Frost, the 17-year-old son of one of Coy’s business partners, was most likely the first operator.
That Coy would employ boys to do a job later associated mostly with girls and young women was only natural. Boys often worked at telegraph offices, while female telegraph operators were a rarity. That would continue into the early days of the telephone. But by the beginning of the 20th century, women began dominating the field. And as their numbers grew they became a powerful force—fighting for the right to join unions, striking for higher wages, even serving overseas in World War I.
It turned out there was a problem with male switchboard operators: The boys, often barely in their teens, couldn’t seem to behave themselves. They had a tendency to roughhouse. And “when some other diversion held their attention, they would leave a call unanswered for any length of time, and then return the impatient subscriber’s profanity with a few original oaths,” wrote Marion May Dilts in her 1941 book, The Telephone in a Changing World.
Hoping to find operators who’d be more attentive to their duties and not cuss out the customers, local phone companies began to recruit girls and young women. Often that meant going house to house, trying to persuade parents that telephone operator was a respectable job for their daughters.
As the number of telephones in the U.S. multiplied, so did the demand for operators. In 1910, there were 88,000 female telephone operators in the United States. By 1920, there were 178,000, and by 1930, 235,000.
In the telephone’s earliest days, one phone could be connected to another by wire, allowing their two owners to speak. While that may have seemed like a miracle at the time, it was clear that the telephone would be much more useful if any given phone could communicate with numerous phones. Telephone exchanges made that possible.
Each of the phones in a particular locale would be connected by wire to a central exchange. The owner of a telephone would call the exchange, and a switchboard operator would answer. The caller would give the operator the name of the person he or she wanted to speak with, and the operator would plug a patch cord into that person’s socket on the switchboard, connecting the two. Long-distance calls would require the local exchange to patch the call through to more distant exchanges, again through a series of cables. Later, as the exchanges added more and more customers, phones were assigned numbers, and callers could request to be connected that way.
Some early telephone operators worked at small, rural exchanges, their switchboards located in the local railroad station or the back of a general store. In cities, massive switchboards could have long rows of operators packed elbow to elbow.
At the busier boards, work could be frantic. Some operators took to wearing roller skates to get around. Otherwise, the dress code tended to be strict—long black dresses and no jewelry, for example. Operators were subject to numerous other rules, and spies sometimes monitored their calls on a device called a listening board. In 1899, when a 25-year-old San Francisco operator named Anna Byrne killed herself, the coroner held the phone company responsible: “I firmly believe that the espionage to which telephone girls are constantly subjected drives them to suicidal desperation. They are overworked; and no mercy is shown them when a slight offense is committed by a trivial infraction of the company’s rules.”
Many operators agreed. “The wonder is that more telephone girls don’t kill themselves,” a veteran operator told the San Francisco Examiner. “We are not allowed to speak even in a whisper to each other the nine hours we are on duty, much less smile, and to laugh out loud is the height of recklessness.” She said she’d once been forced to work 10 extra hours, without pay, for one brief giggle.
Companies often tried to control their operators’ personal lives, as well. “The unwritten rule was that she could not marry and would lose her job if she did,” noted Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey in their 1994 history, Once
The pace of the work and the repressive rules that operators often had to put up with eventually led to dissension in the ranks. Phone companies discovered that their supposedly docile female workforces could only be pushed so far.
In April 1919, for example, some 8,000 operators walked off the job at the New England Telephone Company, all but shutting down phone service in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Five days later, the company met their demands for higher wages and the right to bargain collectively.
The New England strikers may have been inspired by the more than 200 female telephone operators (out of 7,000 who applied) who’d served heroically in First World War. The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, informally known as the “Hello Girls,” had started overseas in March 1918. Their mission was to facilitate communications between American, British and French troops on the Western front, serving not only as operators but often as translators.
The Hello Girls, along with women serving as nurses, ambulance drivers and in other jobs crucial to the war effort, are credited with helping President Woodrow Wilson drop his objection to women’s suffrage and endorse it in a 1918 speech to Congress. “We have made partners of the women in this war…” Wilson said. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
With the coming of the 1930s, technology that allowed telephone users simply to dial another phone without the aid of an operator had become widespread. Phone companies took advantage of the moment to slash their workforces, and thousands of operators lost their jobs. By 1940, there were fewer than 200,000 in all.
In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of just 5,000 workers it classifies as “telephone operators” plus another 69,900 categorized as “switchboard operators including answering service.” And it expects more than 20 percent of those jobs to disappear by 2029.
<fineprint>Photo: [UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES] STRIKING NEW ENGLAND TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH COMPANY OPERATORS LEAVING A MASS MEETING IN BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, APRIL 18, 1919<fineprint>