"Twenty years after they were finally recognized by Congress as the veterans they had been for sixty years, the first women in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, - the only military women not nurses - to serve overseas during World War One, are still unheard of in the history books and on the world wide web.
Three hundred women were sworn into the U.S. Army as volunteers in response to General Pershing's emergency call for bilingual (French-English) long-distance operators to run the switchboards in the first effort in the history of warfare to connect the foot-soldiers in the trenches to their generals behind the lines.
These 300 women were selected for their fulfillment of the requirements, which included the minimum age of 25 -- they were to be given the equivalent to the men's rank of lieutenant, "same as Army Nurses," which gave them the 'privilege' of buying their own uniforms, unlike the enlisted men. They were addressed as "soldier," subject to Court-Martial and to all U.S. Army regulations plus ten more that preserved the virtue of women. They also received their mail in the same way as all soldiers and were hospitalized with them when ill. Several of them were under 25 -- these exceptions having been made because so few were fluent in French. My mother was, I believe the youngest as I recall from the roster, accepted when she volunteered because she was the only one who both spoke French and had had three years' Bell-Telephone experience for training long-distance operators. She has yet another unrecognized contribution that qualified her for the first one. She had been given the only supervisorial position open to women at that time, when she graduated from high school at sixteen.
Of the 300 selected and trained in New Jersey for "self-defense" in case their behind-the-lines position were over-run, five contingents totalling 223 women were dispatched to Chaumont, when the astonishing news of Victory arrived on November 11, 1918. Although these women were sworn into the Army (my mother twice, the first time beside her brother in Detroit) before leaving New Jersey to set sail in March and June 1918, and although ten of them actually received a commendation "In Grateful Recognition" from Congress, when they returned they were told they could NOT have been sworn into the Army because only men were allowed to be sworn in according to Army regulations.
When these women finally took a bill into Congress in 1930, they suffered from the worst of all timing -- the Federal Government (it is still kept a secret) was on the verge of bankruptcy. The stock-market bust and one-third unemployment had forced a show-down with the men veterans camped on the lawns before Congress asking only for a fifty-dollar bonus. For Congress, it was unthinkable to add 223 women who had served overseas to the men they had ordered to be brutally dispersed by mounted police with billy-clubs. Therefore these women had to be lying about their experience, as were the male officers who had sworn them in! Even the affidavits of all their commanding officers, including Pershing's emergency-call itself, were conveniently lost and they were told they had been "contract-employees" although the Army was never able to produce a single contract.
It took sixty years for these fighting women to be recognized as veterans, but it was not retroactive in the sense of their always having been veterans -- they only "became" veterans as a condecension in 1978. When one of the buildings, in which these ten women were installed, was set on-fire, GHQ ordered them to leave and the women refused because the calls were pouring in from the trenches and communications could not be interrupted for their personal safety at the height of the battle because of the order issued in consideration of their sex. The fire was put out, or they would have been the first women casualties in combat in the U.S. Army.
In 1978 Congress finally passed a bill to recognize the 223 women as veterans, albeit NOT retroactive. The story, consequently that made the papers across the country, was that this was a benevolent concession on the part of the Congress that had previously issued its certificate of gratitude to the ten women who had risked their lives in the combat-zone. Of course, that certificate was not mentioned in announcing passage of the recognition bill. Only 70 women were still alive. A general came to my parents' home in Michigan and gave my mother her discharge papers. She joked that she should sue for back-pay. No laughs from the general and his aides, who shifted uneasily and glanced at the local reporter in my parents' living-room.
Minerva published a short exerpt from my 100-page research and interviews of my mother, Oleda Christides, and of the leader of the fight-for-recognition, Merle Anderson, in 1984, six years after the news of the 223 women's recognition had received a one-day bonanza-coverage across the country. Mother was buried with her military hat, the only part of her uniform she still had. I was told that Ms. Egan-Anderson had sent her uniform to the Smithsonian, so I'm surprised to hear that even after the one-day recognition, they never made it into the history books."
More by Michelle Christides on the History of a Hello Girl:
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