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Emma M. Nutt, the First Female Telephone Operator in the US

Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza

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The first female phone operator

Let’s not forget Emma M. Nutt, the first female telephone operator. At age 17, Emma was personally hired by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. She did her job so well, that what was once a business that only hired teenage boys became overrun by young women who took over a once all-male job.

Telephones have come a long way since 1878. The mobile phones that we have today are multifunctional and during the boomer years, were the stuff of science fiction.

In the 1870s phones were barely useful until Bell invented a practical alternative to its predecessor. The first telephones were used for personal and business purposes. They were rented out by pairs because with only one phone, you have no one to call.

However, if a person had numerous clients, they would need numerous pairs of phones to stay in contact. The system was obviously unworkable.

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The Alexander Bell Phone

Bell invented a telephone exchange, where the caller would pick up the phone, and at the other end of the line was a phone operator. The caller would then name the person they wanted to talk to, and the phone operator would link them to the person they asked for.

These phones had no dials to turn or keys to press. The telephone operator did the “dialing” for you by connecting a cable to the correct socket.

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A discreet job

Soon, callers became familiar with the operators’ voices. They often asked either to speak to someone or inquired about useful information. But sometimes, they asked about local gossip. Discretion, though required, wasn’t always observed.

Nutt became the first female telephone operator with the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company, in a field populated by teenage boys. However, on the job, the boys were impatient and cursed rudely. At other times they were uncommunicative or played pranks. Their behavior was unacceptable.

The National Museum of American History gave due recognition to Nutt and her role in the telephone industry by celebrating her in 1984 in an event called “All Alone by the Telephone.”

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A gracious job

Telephone operators were vital in connecting people for conversation, and girls were much better than boys. The females were gracious, mannerly, and cheaper because they weren’t due labor and wage laws.

In its earlier days, one would make a phone call and be connected to an operator. The caller would request to speak to a particular person, and the operator would connect the correct cables to the correct socket of the desired party. Long distance calls were expensive because they required several connections.

Nutt was 17 years old when she landed a job at Edwin Holmes Telephone Despatch Company, also called the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company, in Massachusetts. At the time she was the only female among boys.

Alexander Graham Bell personally hired Nutt, the first female among them. A few hours after Nutt was hired, her sister Stella was also taken in.

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Nutt’s calm, well-bred voice, patience, and soothing positivity were appreciated by customers. She opened the door to making the job of a telephone operator a women-led field. Emma stood out because she remembered every number in the New England telephone directory.

As more people began to purchase telephones, the demand for women operators grew. The women were trained to understand different accents and learned foreign languages.

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A pivotal role in the war

During World War I, The United States was, in terms of military technology, superior in only one thing – their telephones. It may have seemed to be a minuscule advantage, but actually, it was the exact opposite.

Initially, President Woodrow Wilson enlisted women on the war front to work as journalists and clerks. But in 1917 a more crucial role opened up for women: to work as switchboard operators linking the phones across the war front. These women became part of the Signal Corps, and were called the “Hello Girls” because they always answered the phone saying “Hello”.

In WWI the telephone was the key to winning the war. The army could use Morse code on telegraphs, but it was much slower. Radios were similarly slower and needed three mules to transport them. What’s more, radio signals could be picked up, telling the enemy where they were.

By contrast, telephones were secure and immediate. Every call was connected manually so the caller could speak directly to the person he needed to talk to.

And the women performed exquisitely. In the US, some 80 percent of phone operators were women, and they could connect five calls for every single call made by a male operator. This is why the phone operators in the war were all women.

At the start of WWI, there were only 11 officers and 10 men in the Washington office of the Signal Corps. There were also 1,570 enlisted men around the country. But the Army needed more operators, especially bilingual operators.

This is how some 223 American women, were sent to Europe to operate army switchboards across the continent. They were The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, aka, the “Hello Girls”.

World War I led to a shortage of women who could work as telephone operators, and this led to women demanding higher wages and better working hours, which they got.

The need for bilingual women on the switchboards was imminent for long-distance calls. If an American operator talked to a French operator, who in turn talked to a Spanish operator, it required not just multiple lines but knowledge of different languages.

The U.S. ran an entirely new telephone system throughout Europe, primarily beginning in France. The English-speaking operators interacted with French telephone operators.

Because they were bilingual, when generals and operators had to communicate across lines with their counterparts in other cultures, the Hello Girls functioned as translators.

The operation was fast-paced, and the Hello Girls performed many other tasks as well like conducting simultaneous calls, sweeping the boards, and, when asked for it, telling a soldier or general or more usually, artillery, what time it was. The women’s role was pivotal.

Oftentimes, after their shifts, the Hello Girls would visit evacuation hospitals, talk to male patients, and cheer them up. One Hello Girl wrote about how sometimes soldiers would call them just to hear a woman speaking.

This may seem to have been a step forward in women’s rights, but it had its downside, too. For example, Jewish and African American women weren’t hired, and female telephone operators who married lost their jobs. Furthermore, the “Hello Girls” who risked their lives to run military communications in the war were denied recognition upon returning home.

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Hello Girls uncovered

The story of the Hello Girls was uncovered by Elizabeth Cobbs, author of “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.” She contacted Mark Hough, who had three boxes of belongings of the Hello Girls. The boxes contained, among others, a charm bracelet the size of a pair of penny-sized binoculars, which actually worked, and tasteful pornography of French women.

By 1930 there were 235,000 women phone operators across the United States. Women who were hired had to be single, look tidy and dress appropriately. They had to be young – aged between 17 and 26. This was important particularly in small towns, as switchboards for small populations were usually installed in the operator’s home for what was considered to be a 24-hour job.

An operator also had to fit the weight, height, and arm length required to land an office job. The weight was important because each telephone operator had only a small working space. The height and arm lengths had to be long so that they could reach the top of the tall telephone switchboard.

In all, Nutt kept her job for some 35 to 37 years before she retired. She died in 1915, at age 64, but in her memory, “EMMA” was created, a synthesized speech attendant system. An online example would be a computerized voice that turns written text into speech. EMMA was created by ‘Preferred Voice Inc’ and ‘Philips Electronics NV’, and it was named in Nutt’s honor.

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What happened to the telephone operators

As technology and automation advanced, fewer telephone operators were needed, especially with direct dialing in the 1930s. By 1996, AT&T had only 8,000 telephone operators across the U.S. By May 2020, there were less than 5,000 telephone operators in the country. Today, they mainly work to help children and disabled people by making calls and providing other kinds of customer assistance.

However, don’t presume that phone operators will someday no longer exist. In fact, they morphed into call centers, the new version of the telephone operators of old.

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Celebrating Emma M. Nutt Day

Here are some things you can do to celebrate Emma M. Nutt day:

1. Take time to call someone you know who is sad by phone and just listen to them with no judgment, only courtesy, and concern.

2. Call up a family member – your mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother, and ask them about their careers. There may be another Emma M. Nutt in your family who made her mark in her chosen field.

3. Go on social media and talk about Emma M. Nutt day with the hashtag #emmanuttday. Hers is a story not just of a successful career woman, but of a pioneer who, just by doing her job, eventually by her example changed the course of history in World War I. A very small pebble can spread many ripples.

4. Get on your landline and call the operator. When she picks up, tell them you want to thank them for the work that they do, and saay it’s in celebration of Emma M. Nutt, the first female phone operator in the world.

5. Use your phone or landline to call up the women that have inspired you. Let them know how they affect your life and thank them for helping you to be a better person. Oftentimes, wonderful people don’t realize how the good that they do inspires others, so you can make them happy by saying you’re celebrating them on behalf of Emma M. Nutt Day.

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