Women Answered Call in World War I
By Kate Kelly
via the americacomesalive.com web site
In World War I telephone operators were needed in Europe. General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, quickly saw that women—American women–would be better at telephone work than the men. The Signal Corps was all male, and they were not only assigned to string lines but to handle all communications and were not doing well at the task.
A call was put out throughout America for women to serve in Europe as operators. The preferred candidates were fluent in French and English.
Background on the U.S. and the War
When the U.S. entered the war in the spring 1917, the U.S. Signal Corps was immediately tasked with stringing new telephone lines. The communication system in war-torn Europe was in shambles. General Pershing even made sure that telephone elements were part of the equipment he brought with him on his arrival in Europe. He knew this was a priority.
As Pershing waited for the system to become operational, he saw that the men were skilled at stringing the lines. However, he noted they were slow and impatient when it came to plugging and unplugging the calls, as operators had to do at that time. The French offered their operators. Pershing tried the French women in the jobs for a time, but the women were not as adept as American operators, and the language difficulties were very frustrating.
Ads Sent Out in U.S.
In November of 1917, Pershing ordered that advertisements be run across America, seeking bilingual women operators—or bilingual women who were willing to be trained. One thousand seven hundred fifty applied; 450 were accepted for training; only 223 qualified to serve.
Marguerite Martin (1894-1959), a resident of San Mateo, California, was among those chosen for training.
She had an ideal background. Her father was a Frenchman who contracted yellow fever when working to help build the Panama Canal, long before she was born. He was sent north to San Francisco to recover. While there, he met another French immigrant whom he married.
Together the French couple set up a happy household and soon had seven children—one son and six daughters, one of whom was Marguerite. When the only son died from illness, Marguerite’s mother was distraught. She had a mental breakdown and was unable to function. Her father could not raise six girls on his own, so he turned to the church and placed all six daughters in the Catholic orphanage in San Mateo. (During this era, orphanages were frequently used even when there was a living parent. Lee Duncan who served in World War I and found Rin Tin Tin grew up in an orphanage though his mother was alive.)
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