As members of the Army’s Signal Corps, women played a critical role in World War I.
In an informative history of women’s military work, Cobbs (Chair, American History/Texas A&M Univ.; The Hamilton Affair, 2016, etc.) focuses on more than 200 telephone operators who supported combat soldiers in Europe soon after the United States entered the war in 1917. For the first time in war, the telephone became the essential form of communication, requiring skilled workers to nimbly manipulate “jacks, sockets, ringers, and buzzers on the boards of busy switching stations.” In the U.S., this job fell to women, who, claims the author, “may possess advantages over males in multitasking.” Since they did not have advantages over males in finding jobs, many opted to become operators, which paid better than most white-collar employment available to women. Besides needing nimble fingers, the Army also needed bilingual operators to communicate with the French military. These volunteers vastly outnumbered those with telephone experience, and they learned technical skills on the job. Closely following a handful of Signal Corps members, Cobbs reveals that they joined partly out of patriotism, partly to seek adventure. All believed they were being inducted into the Army, following the precedent of females welcomed into the Navy and Marines. The Army, though, adamantly maintained that women’s enlistment into the military was “unwise and highly undesirable.” Although outfitted in uniforms, which they purchased themselves, and adhering to military hierarchy, they discovered, after the war ended, that they were not considered to be veterans and not entitled to any postwar benefits. “They had not been soldiers,” the Army insisted, “no matter how many officers had told them, ‘You’re in the army now.’ ” The Army’s refusal persisted until 1979, when 31 survivors finally won a lawsuit. The author’s story of these women’s recruitment, war work, and postwar frustration is stronger than her argument tying their service to the achievement of women’s suffrage, whose political supporters had complicated, often self-serving motives.
A fresh, well-researched contribution to military and gender history.