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The Story of WWI through the Eyes of America's First Women Soldiers

In "The Hello Girls," historian Elizabeth Cobbs tells the story of 223 American women sent to France during World War I to operate the era's most advanced communications technology: the telephone.

All volunteers, some of them served near the front lines, where they worked with gas masks and helmets hanging from the backs of their chairs, just in case. Two died from influenza. Army officials later said the operators' poise and precision proved crucial to the Allied victory, but when the women came home they were denied the recognition and benefits given to other veterans.

Cobbs grew up in San Diego and taught history at local universities for almost 30 years. She works now at Texas A&M, commuting during the school year from her Mount Helix home.

Q: How did you first hear about these women?

A: I was looking around for a topic for the centennial of World War I and thought it would be nice to do something unusual. I kind of stumbled across them, probably on the internet. Then I had to really go digging because the records are limited.

I have a friend who is very good at this kind of sleuthing and we found the descendants of Grace Banker, who was one of the leaders. They were in a nursing home in New Hampshire. I called the number and left a message: "If you by chance are related to Grace Banker, please call me back." A gentleman did, and he told me, "Gosh, my mother-in-law died young. But we have her diary." I just about fell out of my chair.

And then there was an attorney who helped the women fight their case in Congress in the 1970s. I had his name so I called the Seattle Bar Association and asked if he was still a member. They had an old email and I tracked him down that way. He'd been out of the country for eight years. He told me that in two weeks he was taking all his records to the World War I museum in Kansas City. I said, "Would you mind if I come up to Seattle tomorrow?"

Q: What made you want to write about the women?

A: They had risked life and limb, and when they got back the Army refused to recognize them. They joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars and were kicked out. Some of them served in France for two years and they were told, "You weren't real soldiers."

And the oddity of that was the Navy and Marines had women who served at home in nice clerical jobs while the Army sent women abroad, where they were exposed to real hazard. Unlike the Army, the Navy and Marines had acknowledged the women's service. It was this kind of wrinkle where they were willing to use them but not willing to treat them with respect.

Q: Your book also discusses the parallel fight going on in the U.S. over the right to vote for women. Why did you structure it that way?

A: When we think of the women's suffrage movement, it often boils down to this kind of tired debate about who was more influential: the nice, sedate suffragettes who made friends with President Woodrow Wilson or the wildcat Alice Paul and her group. It's an interesting story, but when I actually read Woodrow Wilson's words, I suddenly realized it was about something much bigger. It was about the whole world.

In the United States, we're famous for our navel-gazing, the belief that our history is only about us. In fact, 20 other countries had enfranchised women before the United States. Woodrow Wilson kind of looked around and went, "Oh, my gosh, how are we going to lead the world if we are behind everybody else on this important matter of democracy?"

Q: The name "Hello Girls" might seem demeaning to modern ears. Was it?

A: This was a time period in the Army when they would call the soldiers "boys." They were the doughboys. There was a family sense about it almost. It may seem like they were disrespecting the women, but in fact it was a great esprit de corps that they felt. Hello Girls is what they were known by, and I felt to honor their experience, rather than to try to explain it away, we should call them what they were called.

Q: Tell me about the uniforms they wore.

A: They were issued regular Army uniforms, coats and jackets and hats, everything the men wore, except that they wore skirts. And the skirts were cut very daringly -- nine inches off the ground. You have to remember, this was an era when women's skirts touched the ground.

In the end, when the case was made to the U.S. Congress that these women had been soldiers, the uniform became a critical piece of evidence. Their attorney pointed out it's against the law to impersonate a soldier of the United States. If the Army had issued them these uniforms, by doing so it had made them truly soldiers. Either that, or the Army was in violation of its own laws.

And the women treasured their uniforms. They really did. They wanted to be part of this great effort.

Q: Why did the Army deny they were soldiers when they came home?

A: I think part of it was this narrow-minded bureaucratic attitude. They didn't want to have to pay for the pensions of the women, even though they were a teeny, tiny group. The Navy and Marines, they were willing to pay the pensions of 11,000 women. So the fact that the Army did not want to support these 223 women by giving them bonuses and death benefits and things like that I think really bespoke their attitude overall, which is that they really couldn't wrap their minds around it.

I'm talking about the bureaucracy back in Washington. In the field, on the front lines, the men adored the women.

Q: What lessons are in their story for those of us around today?

A: It's a story about perseverance, about how people move the piece forward in life. They push it forward and then someone pushes it back. The next generation has to pick up the piece and move it forward again. And then it gets pushed back. And the process repeats.

With the women, the same thing happened in World War II. The WASP group (Women Airforce Service Pilots) was not given recognition. It was not until the 1970s that the telephone operators and the pilots were put in legislation to recognize them.

The irony is that when I was writing the book last year, the Army one more time said, "Oh, gosh, these women weren't really veterans" and barred them from being buried at Arlington. One more time, groups of women had to go to the U.S. Congress and (President) Barack Obama signed legislation to recognize yet again the women of World War II.

So we all have to be vigilant in our own time to watch out for justice.

"The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers," by Elizabeth Cobbs, Harvard University Press, 380 pages.

john.wilkens@sduniontribune.com; (619) 293-2236

 

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