The Women Who Got America Talking: Early Telephone Operators, 1878-1922
When the need for telephone operators arose in the 1870s, the assumption was that they should all be male. Wages for adult men were too high, so boys were hired. They proved quick to argue with the subscribers, so females replaced them. Women were calmer, had reassuring voices and rarely talked back. Within a few years, telephone operators were all female and would remain so. The pay was low and working conditions harsh. The job often impaired their health, as they suffered abuse from subscribers in silence under pain of dismissal. Discipline was stern—dress codes were mandated, although they were never seen by the public. Most were young, domestic and anything but militant. Yet many joined unions and walked picket lines in response to the severely capitalistic, sexist system they worked under.
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