Wilton event: Women operators were vital during World War I

WILTON — More than 200 women helped the U.S. Army win World War I. Then they fought the U.S. Army for 60 years and finally won again.

That, in a nutshell, was the experience of 223 women known as the “Hello Girls,” women who went to France and worked as telephone operators under Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, connecting military officers across the country with the speed and secrecy that could not be matched by telegraph or radio.

Relatively unknown until recently, their story will be told on Thursday, March 5, when the film “The Hello Girls” will be shown at 6:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion at Wilton Library. The film features rare 100-year old footage of America’s first female soldiers and photos from family archives.

The event is a collaboration of the library, Wilton League of Women Voters, James B. Whipple American Legion Post 86, and Wilton Historical Society. To register, visit www.wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-6334.

The panelists include Army Capt. Doris Lippman (Ret.); Amy Pettigrew, granddaughter of Hello Girl Ellen Turner; and Darla Shaw, professor emeritus of Western Connecticut State University and 38-year veteran of Ridgefield Public Schools.

Shaw said the women operators were among a group of women who supported the troops during the war, including nurses, ambulance drivers, decoders, translators, postal workers, secretaries and canteen workers.

It’s not as if the Army was eager to have them.

“They would not have had jobs if men were available,” Shaw said. “When they went to women, they did not want to include black women unless they really, really needed people.

“Many of these women needed money desperately, some were looking for adventure, most were single women, women who could speak a foreign language. They were sturdy, hardy, they could take the hardships. There were many more women who applied than they could take for the jobs,” she said.

The telephone was the fastest and most secure communications technology available to the Army in the early 1900s. The telegraph required using Morse code, which was slow. Radios were large and difficult to transport. Their frequencies were not secure and could easily be picked up.

Telephones were faster and more secure, but managing long-distance calls meant handing the call from one operator to another and in the beginning that meant dealing with French-speaking operators, so women with bilingual skills were recruited. It’s reported the women were far faster and more accurate in connecting calls than male soldiers who tried to do the job.

“What was important also,” Shaw said, “was they saw for the first time they could do the job men could do, they could train people, they could be supervisors and troubleshooters. They saw the skill base they had.”

Wilton connection

One of those women who had the skills needed was Ann Nunes’ great-grandmother, Ellen Turner. Nunes’ mother, Amy Pettigrew, is making the trip from Florida to be on the panel.

Speaking from her home in Wilton, Nunes said of her grandmother, “As her mother was growing up, Grandma Ellen’s service was very matter of fact. There were no special frills. They didn’t talk about it much.”

Turner was in the fourth wave of women “hired” by the Army, arriving in France in the late summer of 1918, shortly before the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918. She was a French major at Wellesley College and answered a national recruitment effort through the Bell system.

First stationed in Le Havre, she stayed on after the armistice and was placed in Paris. In one of her letters home, she talks about her accommodations in Le Havre.

“We are looking now for other quarters for winter,” she wrote on Sept. 6, 1918. “This house is but a makeshift at best — and it will be hopeless when the bad weather sets in — also we are being frightfully stung on the rent. It is not worth more than 70 fr and we are paying 700 fr — but it was the only thing to be had at the time and it was a case to take this or nothing so they took this for us ...”

Because her letters were censored, there is little information about the actual work Turner did, although she did work at Versailles during treaty negotiations.

Thanks to her work in France, Turner met Lt. John Gravs from Georgia, whom she later married.

After the war

When the war was over, the telephone operators were able to find work, but most of the other women were not able to come home to jobs.

“Because in most cases they had been abroad and were so strong and had built their skills, when they came back they were never the same,” Shaw said. “They came back with a belief in themselves and self-assurance they didn’t have before.”

What they did not have was recognition from their country that the work they had done, that they had risked their lives for with many working near the front lines.

When the women were recruited they swore an oath, were given Army serial numbers, wore uniforms (which they had to buy), held rank and were subject to military justice. When they came home and expected to receive benefits, the Army told them they were never enlisted.

“They come back, and it’s about men again,” Shaw said. At war’s end in 1918, the women could not even vote, a privilege women in 20 other countries had already attained.

Suffragists Alice Paul of Ridgefield and Elsie Hill of Redding went to President Woodrow Wilson to argue the case for the women’s vote. They used all the women’s service during the war as leverage, Shaw said.

“They went into the women serving abroad and how they were being used. The time had come, but this was one of their biggest arguing points,” she said. “How can you deny them?

“It was a definite arguing point,” she continued. “Alice was so detailed that she really knew how to argue these points that were going to be so valid to get 19th Amendment.”

Women did eventually win the right to vote in 1920, but those who served still were not recognized as Army veterans and would spend six decades fighting for that distinction. They lobbied presidents from Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

Finally, in 1977, with the help of Sen. Barry Goldwater and Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, after most of them had died, Carter agreed and they were victorious.