Throughout the early part of our research when we were learning different stories in the commemoration process of WWI, the term “Hello Girls” story did not dominate the historic landscape. We then looked back at our serious and insightful sources such so far but did not find a mention of these heroes. We first discovered these heroic young women through a book titled The Hello Girls by Elizabeth Cobbs. It was a great book and we furthered that research by trying to discover more information online. We reached out to the twittersphere to see if anyone had any lists of the members from Connecticut. No one had anything, and the UCONN archives reached out and gave us an image of a training class for these female operators. We then pooled all of our information together and added it to our presentation. After our presentation, we found a whole newspaper full of these brave women’s stories. We also discovered that the WWI Musuem curated a presentation that Elizabeth Cobbs delivered. Viewing her lecture became a homework assignment the next night: https://www.theworldwar.org/visit/upcoming-events/women-at-war-hello-girls
We primarily focused on three Connecticut girls; however, we first wanted to understand the conditions and what it was like to be a Hello Girl. Usually the majority of the French speaking Volunteers went to France, which meant they all had to speak the language fluently. Women did not have prior experience with telephones and only had one month to train; however, many felt they would need three months to be fully prepared. The idea of the Hello Girls was to connect people as quickly as possible. Many women also had to learn the abbreviation language Taylorism, which was a quick and snappy way to get messages relayed quickly. Taylorism was also used in the U.S at factories to speed up manufacturing and labor. WWI first time women had a large role in war. Men who held these jobs were seen as rude and impatient with people, while women were more caring and understanding.
We also learned some valuable information from The New York Times. These impressive women had much more vigorous duties and responsibilities than we originally had thought. Some things that the women had to do were wear a standard uniform that was approved by the War College at all times. When they were fighting for their recognition as veterans in the 1970’s they used this argument. Also, if they were captured while in uniform they would become prisoners of war and were not just considered civilians. They also had to understand French well and translate messages correctly and quickly, and finally sleep in cramped conditions and sometimes even on the roofs of buildings. A common argument was that women were still civilians, but since they wore uniforms at all times Mark Hough said these women were called prisoners of war, which means they were technically soldiers and should have been recognized a lot earlier.
Our first Hello girl was Beatrice P. Savard or maiden name Bourneuf was born on March 11, 1891, in Haverhill, MA and was a Signal Corps Telephone Operator in WWI. In the departure papers that we observed, Beatrice was shown as a supervisor in the Signal Corps and residing in New London, CT. Beatrice and a select group of other women were also a special Signal Corps operator in France during WWI. Sixty-two years after the war on May 29, 1980, Beatrice was given a victory pin, honorable discharge papers, and officially became Connecticut’s first female veteran from WWI in a special ceremony. “They told us within a year or two after it was signed [the armistice] we would be getting discharges,” Beatrice said, “It finally happened. It was a great affair.” Beatrice died two years later on June 11, 1982, in Waterford, CT.
Our next Hello Girl was Mildred Wakefield, a resident of Connecticut who joined the signal corps. She was a graduate of Wellesley College class of 1913. While at Wellesley she learned about the Hello Girls through the school newspaper. Before joining the Hello Girls, she was an english teacher at East Hartford High School. She was 23 when she joined the Signal Corps, and that made her the youngest girl in the unit. To enter the Signal Corps she had to pass a rigorous examination which was impressive for her to do at such a young age. She then became a cadet in the signal corps. After the war she went back to teaching at East Hartford High School. It was very interesting to learn about someone that was so close to Suffield that was involved in this unit. Through this information we took the bare minimum that we knew and we tweeted out to Connecticut Historical Society and Wellesley College to see if they had any more information about Mildred Wakefield. To confirm our information before tweeting out to these organizations, we looked Mildred Wakefield up on Ancestry.com, which is a very valuable resource. Through Ancestry we found that her father was from Maine, which contradicted some other information that had said he was from Canada. Due to finding that all other family members matched up with our information, we concluded that due to people taking a census during this time, people might lie about some of their information to avoid any conflict with the government. This is why a lot of information from the census is not completely accurate. She was a very interesting person to learn more about considering we found so much information instantly on her through ancestry.
Out last Hello Girl was Elizabeth Roby. We could only find a single document that contained information on Elizabeth Roby and her life as well as her role in the company. Although we could only attain a single source in an old newspaper bulletin, we found out she had the role of the assistant to the head of the department in Chicago and was an instructor for the telephone company, as well as being a Smith College graduate with a specialization in French. This would have meant she was very useful for the Hello Girls and might have had a higher position and duty with her knowledge of French.
For more on Taylorism, see a Tweet from the UConn Archives: https://twitter.com/caisct_pbl/status/993831353966911490