By Mary Engelker ’18
April 6 marks 100 years since the United States entered WWI. In recognition of this anniversary, Elizabeth Cobbs, the Melbern G. Glasscock Chair in American History and a professor in the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts, wrote the non-fiction book Hello Girls, which tells the stories of the first female soldiers in the U.S. Army.
“I wrote it thinking it would be neat to have something honoring those who served in WWI,” Cobbs said.
When reflecting on WWI, people are most likely to remember the trench warfare in which husbands, sons, and fathers lost their lives. It is rare for people to remember the women who played a vital role in war effort–switchboard operators.
Cobbs tells the stories of the 223 French-speaking American women who operated the telephone switchboards during the war, referred to colloquially as the “Hello Girls.” These women, formally known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, were highly valued by General Pershing, who was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during WWI.
“He wouldn’t go anywhere without them,” Cobbs said. “They found that women were the best for the job as they could multitask, convince the men on the phone line to follow orders, and even translated the calls to English or French. They wanted to be there for America, and also for American women. They wanted to show what they could do.”
After returning from war, these women did not receive medals from the Army in appreciation for their wartime work. In Hello Girls, Cobbs describes the eventual triumph of Merle Egan, a woman who fought for decades and finally received her medal at the age of 91.
While researching these women, Cobbs met with family members of several Hello Girls. She also met with Mark Hough, the attorney who helped Merle Egan make her case against the U.S. Army.
By weaving together the stories of these women, Cobbs shows how the Hello Girls paved the way for women today.
Cobbs said, “These women would take abuse that no man would, and keep on plugging, literally.”