10 questions with Elizabeth Cobbs

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Learn about America’s first women soldiers as award-winning historian Elizabeth Cobbs discusses her latest book, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers (Harvard University Press).

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as a historian?

I have always considered myself universally curious. Introduce any new subject and I’m hooked! As a child, I loved books. I was one of seven children and our weekly trip to the public library was an event. We lived far from town, down a long dirt road in Southern California, so piling into my mother’s dust-covered Chrysler and heading for the library always felt special. We kids would spread out upon arrival. I would spend an hour or more exploring the quiet stacks by myself, finding stories about far away places and times. From ancient Egypt and Greece to modern Brooklyn and Boston, the world beyond beckoned.

Years later, as an undergraduate at the University of California, I majored in literature and minored in philosophy and international relations. Within each discipline, I found myself persistently drawn to the backstory: the history of philosophy, diplomacy, and literature. I decided to apply to history programs at the doctoral level and was fortunate to join a talented group of students and professors at Stanford in 1983. The rest is, well, history.

Elizabeth Cobbs at her Stanford graduation. Credit: Elizabeth Cobbs.

What is the first history-related book you remember losing yourself in?

I’ve always enjoyed artful combinations of fiction and fact, and one of my earliest memories is of a novel set in the American West about a girl whose father had gone away to help fight the Spanish-American War. At the time, I had little awareness of that war or any other, but was fascinated by the idea that the women in the family were unexpectedly thrown upon their own resources to run the ranch, wrangle cattle, and earn cash. The heroine was my own age, roughly 10-years-old, and she forged a business baking pies for itinerant cowboys starved for a taste of home. I happened to be adept with a rolling pin myself, so I could just imagine myself in her situation.

Then, and now, I’ve always found it interesting to try to walk in the shoes of historical figures.  I find that if I closely observe the specific steps they must have taken to achieve an object, or avoid a danger, I am more likely to uncover the evidence I need to understand the past as fully as possible.

This insight has made me dogged.

I’ll go pretty much anywhere and won’t stop until I either find what I need or ascertain that it doesn’t exist. As a result, I’ve done archival research on four continents, including North and South America, Africa, and Europe.

Your dissertation won the prestigious Allan Nevins Prize. What was your topic and what is one of the first things that come to mind when you reflect on that time period?

My research was on American relations with Brazil before and after World War II. That sounds boring now—but it was like an extension of the Wild West!

This was an era when no one knew what shape the world was imminently to take. Would the Americas be forever cut off from Fascist-occupied Europe and Japanese-dominated Asia?

For more than a century, the countries of the Americas had been the lone practitioners of “republicanism.” On the other side of the Atlantic and Pacific, monarchical empires were the rule. That changed after World War I, when republican democracy began to spread. Yet only two decades later, Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini were turning back the clock. They gloried in the most violent forms of exploitation.

Since this was my doctoral research, the topic was necessarily limited. I focused on the attempts of two men to demonstrate that democratic capitalism was a better road to peace and prosperity than fascism, communism, or militarism.

Nelson Rockefeller was heir to a vast fortune, yet worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Henry Kaiser was a man of modest means who became an industrial giant, but also founder of the non-profit Kaiser Permanente medical group.

Rockefeller and Kaiser started new businesses in poorer countries like Brazil that gave local people an equitable share of profits and corporate control. They undertook these efforts largely as private citizens, and as a consequence, my research helped expand the field of international relations beyond the activities of government officials, upon which scholars traditionally focused.

As I reflect now upon that time period, what strikes me is how much we take “progress” for granted. The collective triumph over Hitler, for example, was a near thing—not fated at all. Disillusioned today by the failure of our governments to achieve all we’ve hoped for, we often forget the incredible human progress we’ve made since the 1940s and 1950s. Sadly, this disillusionment stokes admiration for racist forms of nationalism on the one hand and authoritarian forms of socialism on the other.

Introduce The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers

War correspondent Harry Williams grabbed the phone when German artillery shells rained down on Paris in May 1918. Fearing the static of a broken line or incomprehensible chatter of a foreign operator, he was astonished instead by “the well-modulated, courteous, and very American accents of a Hello Girl dripping in at the left ear.”

Relief washed over the panicked reporter.

“The whole thing sounded so much like Los Angeles that I could have given three cheers for the Bell telephone system, while I breathed a silent prayer that all the Hello Girls in the world might prosper and marry well.”

Harry Williams’s experience was repeated 26 million times over during the thick of fighting in 1918. When General John Pershing arrived in Paris as head of the American Expeditionary Forces, he discovered that local telephone communications hardly functioned.

Pershing dispatched a cable to Washington requesting the immediate dispatch of female telephone operators, known colloquially back home as “Hello Girls.”

The army used them as “bilingual wire experts,” however: technical personnel who maintained the indispensable link between headquarters and the front lines 24 hours a day.

From their arrival in March 1918 to the war’s end on November 11, the 223 uniformed members of the U.S. Signal Corps faced the hazards of war to keep millions of officers and men connected when it mattered most.

American telephone girls on arrival for “hello” duty in France. They all can speak both English and French. March 1918. Q. M. Sgt. Leon H. Caverly. (Army). Credit: Defense Imagery.

Were there any debates within the military and government about whether to allow women to volunteer?

Secretary of War Newton Baker famously told General Pershing that he would give the general only two orders: “Go, and come back.”

So  when Pershing cabled that female operators must “all take the soldier oath,” no one contradicted him directly, even though War Department officials were horrified.

General John Pershing, pictured here, was given two orders by Secretary of War Newton Baker during World War I: “Go, and come back.” Credit: Library of Congress .

Any woman who volunteered to work with men was probably suspect. “Nice girls” didn’t do that kind of thing.

Unaware of War Department resistance, more than 7600 women immediately volunteered for the first 100 positions “over there” when newspapers across the nation announced women were needed just as much as men in the critical arena of communications. Neither Pershing nor his female recruits had any idea that the War Department would plot to deny them veterans’ benefits—including their war medals—once they returned.

How did women compare to men when performing the same kinds of communications tasks such as connecting phone calls?

Telephone operating was a sex-segregated occupation. Men weren’t excluded per se, but they were typically hired only to supervise women. Companies thought women needed supervising and men were best for the job. An occasional woman was promoted to supervisor, but that wasn’t the norm.

In the words of the U.S. Census Bureau, “It has been demonstrated beyond all doubt that the work of operating is better handled by women than by men or boys.” As a consequence, the Bureau reported in 1902, “the telephone companies in the United States have been alive to the importance of securing and retaining this quality of labor.”

The Army itself found that it took the average male soldier sixty seconds to connect a call. It took the average woman a speedy ten seconds. In wartime, delays of this magnitude could kill.

Introduce us to a few of the Hello Girls you find personally inspiring.

I found nearly every single Hello Girl inspiring! Approximately half the male soldiers were volunteers, but all of the women were. Each had her reasons, and I followed their trails from Seattle to Maine. My book focused on two in particular: Grace Banker, who led the women to France in 1918, and Merle Egan, who led them to victory over the U.S. Army in 1977.

Fluent in French and English—and an instructor at ATT before the war—Banker was the Chief Officer of the first unit that departed for France in March 1918. General John Pershing came to rely upon Banker so completely that she and a handful of her “girls” accompanied him to the epic battles of Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. Banker was sometimes on duty 21 hours out of a 24-hour day.

Grace Banker (1892-1960) with her Distinguished Service Medal in 1919. This work is in the public domain in the United States because the author is anonymous and this work was made available to the public more than 50 years ago.

Merle Egan ran switchboard communications for the Versailles Peace Conference. When she later learned female soldiers would receive no recognition or benefits—including hospitalization for war-related injuries—she took up a fight that lasted sixty years.

At age 91, Egan and thirty other surviving veterans finally got their discharge papers and medals.

Was there a stigma associated with women who volunteered?

When the women arrived in France, they found that some male soldiers resented them, and especially their proximity to combat and relationship with General Pershing. Some men also assumed that the women would go into hysterics at danger and fail to perform their demanding duties. Instead, when the women failed to flinch under bombardment the very first day they arrived in Paris, and then excelled far beyond the doughboys at the job of operating, most male soldiers became their avid admirers.

At the end of the fighting, when Grace Banker accompanied the Army to Germany, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for “untiring devotion to her exacting duties under trying conditions.”

Her commendation read that Banker “did much to assure the success of the telephone service during the operations of the First Army against the St. Mihiel salient and the operations to the north of Verdun.”

Thirty other women received special commendations as well, many signed by General Pershing himself.

10 questions with What’s Her Name Podcast

What kinds of challenges did women face when returning from the war?

Two women never returned. Corah Bartlett and Inez Crittenden died from the same hazard that killed more American men than combat: the fateful influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 that swept Army encampments. Bartlett and Crittenden were buried in American military cemeteries in France.

Other women who returned rapidly integrated back into American society, with the exception of a handful who sustained permanent disabilities, mostly due to the tuberculosis common on the warfront. Female veterans continued to maintain close contact with one another, and formed their own organization when denied admittance to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups recognized by Congress.

How did World War I influence the right of women to vote in the United States? In the rest of the world?

Summoned to participate in war industries and sustain their families all on their own, women around the world used the conflict to achieve longstanding demands for full citizenship. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and ten other countries enfranchised females before America.

The country that had long patted itself on the back as the vanguard of liberal democracy found itself in the rear.

The United States was late to both the war and women’s suffrage. Once President Woodrow Wilson endorsed both causes, he told the U.S. Senate in September 1918 that the vote was vital to the “realization of the objects for which the war is being fought.” How could America lead the free world if it was behind everyone else?

The president reminded the Senate that “This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women,—services rendered in every sphere,—not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.”

The Hello Girls were part of this story. The pioneers who served “upon the very skirts” of the battle help set a new standard of citizenship for women. They accepted the harshest responsibility of democracy: placing one’s life in danger when necessary to defend the republic.

Congress ultimately agreed, and passed the Nineteenth Amendment on June 4, two days after Merle Egan sailed past the Statue of Liberty and into the Port of New York.

If you could go back in time and spend a week during the war with the Hello Girls, what would you most want to learn or experience?

I’m not sure I would have the courage to spend a week with them in the war! It would be like time-traveling to World War II, another nightmare best avoided. I suppose I would most enjoy visiting the women after they were summoned to Paris to help chauffer in a new era of world peace. Banker and Egan, who counted one another dear friends, must have been fun to watch.

Child of a unionist, Egan had a feisty streak and did not hesitate to stand up for what was right. When the pair roomed briefly at the Signal Corps house in Paris, an amused YWCA minute-taker noted that they volunteered to represent either side of the political divide at spirited household meetings: “Miss Banker heading the Conservative [Party] and Miss Egan the Bolshevists!”

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies, and will be used for a special Deseret News feature commemorating Veterans Day on Nov 4.

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