55 Historians Sign Letter To Congress Supporting Congressional Gold Medal For The Hello Girls Of WWI

Published: 22 April 2024


The U.S. military needed skilled operators to handle the telephones in World War I. Known as the Hello Girls, 223 U.S. women served in France. Some worked near the front lines with Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, the top U.S. commander. Here, the women work in Seine, France, in 1918. Their story was largely forgotten, but legislation now before Congress, endorsed by 55 academic and independent historians, would award a Congressional Gold Medal to America's First Women Soldiers.

The U.S. Army Signal Corps Women Telephone Operators Played Key Role in World War I

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Well-known American historians Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs of San Diego State University and Dr. David Kennedy of Stanford University have submitted a letter to Congress, cosigned by 55 academic and independent historians, calling for passage of legislation in the 118th Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Hello Girls, America’s First Women Soldiers.

The letter urges the Senators and House Members to cosponsor S.815 and HR 1572, respectively, and to pass the legislation as soon as Memorial Day 2024 if possible.

The legislation was officially recommended to Congress by the United States World War I Centennial Commission, and is supported by the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, and other military and women’s organizations. Similar legislation was introduced in the 116th and 117th Congresses.

Cobbs, author of the bestselling book The Hello Girls, America’s First Women Soldiers, initiated the historians’ letter of support for the Congressional Gold Medal, in keeping with her ongoing efforts to tell the neglected story of the WWI combat operators. “When I signed copies of my book at the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington, and saw a long line of female readers with unusually erect posture, I realized that most were veterans or service members, and not one knew where her story had started because it had never been told. That moved me.”

The Hello Girls of the U.S. Army were the first American women soldiers to actively participate in combat operations. 223 deployed to France, where they served on the front lines during World War I. Acting as bi-lingual Signal Corps Telephone Operators, they played a key role in the American combat effort, connecting over 26 million calls between and among American and French forces. After the Armistice in 1918, the Hello Girls remained in France to assist during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations that officially ended the war. Over 30 Hello Girls received individual commendations, and two died while in Army service.

But when the Hello Girls returned to America after the war, despite serving under commissioned officers, wearing uniforms, rank insignia, and dog tags, swearing the Army Oath, and being subject to court-martial, the Hello Girls were told they had served as “civilian contractors” instead of soldiers. They were ignored for decades and forgotten by history. For almost 60 years, the surviving unit members petitioned Congress and the Army for the same veterans recognition afforded to their male colleagues. Finally, in 1977, Congress passed a law paving the way for the Hello Girls, and the Army’s Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II, to be recognized as full veterans of the US Armed Forces.

The Hello Girls in World War I were pioneers in the use of electronic voice communications to manage combat operations at a time when the Army was transitioning from reliance on Morse code, whistles, flags, trumpets, and pigeons to get the message through.  Their ability to pass rapid tactical information calmly and seamlessly between two allied armies that spoke different languages was a fundamental breakthrough, and helped bring the fighting to an end in the Allies’ favor as much as a year earlier than it might have taken without them, according to General Pershing. All modern American military operations and tactical communications in the century since WWI have their roots with the Hello Girls, whose bravery, talents, skills, and dedication to duty set the standard to which all men and women in American military service should aspire.

David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at Stanford University, and author of Over Here: The First World War and American Society, says the Congressional Gold Medal recognition is well-earned and timely. “Now is the time to remedy a lamentable lapse in our national memory. These women also served. They served honorably, well, and consequentially. They richly deserve this recognition.”

The World War I Centennial Commission asks Americans everywhere to contact their Senators and Representative, and encourage lawmakers become cosponsors of S.815 and HR 1572, and award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Hello Girls this session. The Commission has provided a convenient online toolkit at https://ww1cc.org/hellogirls making it simple to send emails to both of your Senators and to your Representative in just a few minutes.

“Heroism in the past gives courage to the living — which is the best reason for honoring our very first women to wear the uniform of the United States Army in combat operations,” said Cobbs. “They were all so young — some younger than eighteen – and the better I got to know them, the more convinced I became that their story must be heard, and their service honored.”

April 17, 2024

Esteemed Senators and Representatives,

In company with the national American Historical Association, we are 55 professional historians of the United States, including six winners of the Pulitzer Prize, who urge you to co-sponsor S.815 and HR 1572 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to America’s first uniformed female combatants. Memorial Day 2024 would be a fitting opportunity.

The “Hello Girls” were U.S. Army Signal Corps switchboard operators who connected calls between front line trenches and Army command in World War One. General John Pershing found that trained men needed a full minute to patch through a telephone call, so he cabled Washington for help.

“On account of the great difficulty of obtaining properly qualified men, request organization and dispatch to France of force of woman telephone operators all speaking French and English equally well,” General Pershing wrote in 1917. All women “should be uniformed” and take the Army oath.

During the fiercest months of fighting, women operated switchboards twenty-four hours a day. The Army found they connected five calls per minute. Nicknamed the Hello Girls, these female combatants patched through 26 million urgent messages to aid troops under fire. Had “Doughboys” still manned the boards, the number would have been closer to 5 million. Untold lives would have been sacrificed.

Two women died and were buried in France. When survivors sailed home in 1919, the Army informed them that their dog-tags and dedicated service did not entitle them to the same Victory Medals, cash bonuses, or hospitalization for disability granted other soldiers. Congress finally awarded them basic recognition in 1977 (along with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of World War II), but most had already died.

A group of descendants and the World War One Centennial Commission have spearheaded an effort to obtain the Congressional Gold Medal on their behalf. Doing so would not only honor these pioneers, but every woman in uniform since.

Can you please help make this happen by this Memorial Day? Your co-sponsorship is essential.

With sincere regards,

David Kennedy, Stanford University                                                  Elizabeth Cobbs, San Diego State University
Over Here: The First World War and American Society               The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers


Catherine Algor, Massachusetts Historical Society

Beth Bailey, University of Kansas

J. Barker-Benfield, State University of New York at Albany

Carol Berkin, City University of New York

Mary Frances Berry, University of Pennsylvania

David Blight, Yale University

Susan Branson, Syracuse University

Douglas Brinkley, Rice University

Jennifer Burns, Stanford University

Victoria Bynum, Texas State University, San Marcos

James Campbell, Stanford University

Clayborn Carson, Stanford University

Catherine Clinton, University of Texas at San Antonio

Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University

Karen Cox, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Susan Curtis, Purdue University

Hasia Diner, New York University

Lynn Dumenil, Occidental College

Michele Gillespie, Wake Forest University

Lorry M. Fenner, Colonel (USAF Retired), Independent Scholar

Ada Ferrer, New York University

Edda Fields-Back, Carnegie Mellon University

Ellen Fitzpatrick, University of New Hampshire

Lorien Foote, Texas A&M University

Jill Frahm, Dakota County Technical College

Leslie Harris, Northwestern University

Steven Hahn, New York University

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Harvard University

Jacqueline Jones, University of Texas at Austin

Maxine Jones, Florida State University

Laura Kalman, University of California at Santa Barbara

Jane Kamensky, Harvard University

Linda Kerber, University of Iowa

Alice Kessler-Harris, Columbia University

Wayne Lee, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Kyle Longley, Society for Military History

Brian Linn, Texas A&M University

Fredrik Logevall, Harvard University

Peter Mansoor, Ohio State University

Valerie Matsumoto, University of California at Los Angeles

Mary Niall Mitchell, University of New Orleans

Johanna Neuman, Independent Scholar

Mary Beth Norton, Cornell University

Kristen T. Oertel, University of Tulsa

Margaret O’Mara, University of Washington

Jack Rakove, Stanford University

Vicki Ruiz, University of California at Irvine

Manisha Sinha, University of Connecticut

Marjorie Spruill, University South Carolina

Kathryn Statler, University of San Diego

Nicholas Syrett, University of Kansas

Kara Dixon Vuic, Texas Christian University

Susan Ware, Editor Emerita, American National Biography


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