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KPBS Midday Edition

World War I 'Hello Girls' Were First U.S. Women To Serve Overseas

Women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. before they departed for France in an undated photo.
Courtesy Robert, Grace and Carolyn Timbie
Women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. before they departed for France in an undated photo.
World War I 'Hello Girls' Were First U.S. Women To Serve Overseas
World War I's 'Hello Girls' Were First Women To Serve Overseas GUEST: Elizabeth Cobbs, author, "The Hello Girls"

100 years ago on this date the US Congress declared war on Germany along with thousands of soldiers and stitch sailors to take part in the war for the first time in US history attached in the U.S. Army as telephone operators. This story was told in the new book that hello girls and joining the is author Elizabeth Cobbs. Specifically requested women to serve as telephone operators. Why is that so crucial. This is a time in which telephone locations said in every other way in World War I it was the first industrialized were in total medications and played an absolutely critical role I was the first time in general could speak to somebody on the frontlines and consent fire a retreat. So at a time when the scope of battle have become extraordinarily wide across hundreds of miles in some cases you really have to be to get to people right away you really hated the idea of losing women. It was not the idea that women had to be as good as man they had to be better than men. In this case telephone operator was sex segregated and every single phone call on the United States was connected by a woman. When they got abroad they realized that we are going to be in big trouble if we do not get women over here to facilitate calls. The said communications went down for even an hour that the Army machine would collapse. It was not just sitting in an office. What of these women experience Like all soldiers there was a range and experience. A lot of the women were well behind the lines that there was a group that went with the general wherever he went. Literally they could be sitting there with her telephone switchboard just shaking because the walls were shaking and the guns were going off and in one case upon. The corner of their barracks. They were exposed to real hazards. You may remember World War I is famous for the submarine warfare because they are really brave women. These women found themselves in another battle to get veterans benefits from the Army. Tell us about this struggle. It was an interesting story for me. These women did a really historic and interesting thing and after the country's call. When they got home the Army acted as if they were onions -- nuisance. Told them that they were not veterans and some of them were asked after about six months were is the discharge. The did not have formal discharge. Once had disabilities did not hospitalization. Some found out that technically you were a soldier so evenly result of this policy we cannot let because you were not a real soldier. There is sort of a small group that could not take it lying down and that's the kind of women they were anyway. So the pressure there Congressman and they wrote letters in the talked to schoolchildren and did all kinds of organizing. They would like the first wave of feminism and by the late 60s early 70s NextWave is coming up in a hot on it. The got there right for burial in Arlington and they got the victory Meadows you know the one that led the campaign to the and she was the type of person that for her old age not slowing down. Seven she got her victory Meadows she gave this great speech and said I deserve is metal not just for serving in World War I but for fighting the U.S. Army for 60 years and winning. The Army was not even the first voting branch to enlist women. The Navy willingly gave women veteran status and their benefits. Is why was there such a difference? I have talked with them about this. What is the difference of the culture the. I have met some Navy people actually working in Stamford the told me that they have a tradition of improvisation. They used to be out see -- out at sea very far away so it's a culture a little bit more rough and ready Lessons to they still have for us today. They tell us that advances and women rights have to do with men and women working together. Those that stood by these women and encourage them are important to and it tells us that progress is never in his line. To come back at the same spot but at a higher level. You know these things are still issues for us today. I've been speaking with Elizabeth about her latest but the hello girls about America's first women soldiers. She will be speaking out -- about it at Warwick's on April 18. Thank you

Thursday marks 100 years since Congress declared war on Germany and the U.S. military entered World War I.

Among the thousands of soldiers and sailors to take part in the war, a group of young women volunteered for military service, answering a call to join the Army's Signal Corps. They would become the first group of women to serve the U.S. military overseas.

"The Signal Corps did not fire cannons, sink submarines or bayonet invaders," historian Elizabeth Cobbs wrote in her new book, "The Hello Girls." "Their job was to send messages."

Cobbs recounts how General John Pershing personally demanded telephone operators who could be dispatched to France in order keep lines of communication across Europe open for his troops.

"Telephone operating was largely sex-segregated," Cobbs wrote. "If America was going to position and command its immense forces, it needed women to handle the advanced technologies at which they were expert."

Cobbs, a former San Diego State University professor who now teaches at Texas A&M University, said that despite being subject to Army regulations, ordered to wear official uniforms and being treated as military personnel during World War I, the women of the Signal Corps fought for 60 years after the war to get their veterans' status and benefits from an intransigent Army.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Cobbs on Thursday about the Signal Corps' service and why the Army fought against these women soldiers for years while the Navy readily acknowledged its early women veterans.