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"Weavers of Speech"

"Weavers of Speech" (photo courtesy of Boston Public Library)

Women and the American Telephone Industry 

  Women have been working as telephone operators for over a century, since the invention of the telephone and today in modern call center operations. Long before the rise of the independent female consumer, women have continued to be the dominant force of operators for telephone companies and call centers.

  After Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876, his company would then hire teenage boys for cheap, to work the switchboards and connect callers. Bell, however, found that the boys were rude: in fact, they would prank callers and curse, to the chagrin of many callers.

Boston Telephone Dispatch Company employs teenage boys.

  It was on September 1, 1878, that Emma Nutt became the first female telephone operator. A few hours later, Stella Nutt, her sister, became the second female telephone operator, and by the 1880s telephone operation was considered women's work.

Emma & Stella Nutt work as telephone operators alongside young boys.

  Women, specifically young women aged 17-26, were attributed to have more pleasant ‘lady’-like behavior on the phone when connecting callers. Like teenage boys, women were also paid half to one-quarter of men’s salary. 

 Late Nineteenth-Century Parisian Telephone Exchange

  In 1879, American Bell expanded overseas and founded the International Bell Telephone Company in order to promote sales of its telephone equipment throughout Europe.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), which acquired American Bell in 1885, founded the first training school for female operators in 1902. The school was managed by Katherine Schmitt, one of the first telephone operators.

 Young girls listen to their lesson instructor for operators course, 1902.

According to Elinor Carmi, “[Women’s] bodies and minds were designed and managed like the rest of Bell’s media apparatus” (Carmi, 2015). Women had to mold their mouth, tongue, jaw, posture and speaking timbre to strict guidelines. In stark contrast to the worker treatment of their male predecessors, they could be written up for crossing their legs, wiping their brow, or blowing their nose without permission.

 Women walk out of Boston Dispatch Company in 1919 Strike.

The Operator’s Revolt of 1919 in the USA was sparked by outrage at these unfair working conditions. After the Strike of 1923, AT&T chose to invest in complete automation of their caller connections, eventually laying off thousands of women. The development of switchboard automation foreshadowed the later emergence of the field of cybernetics.

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