General John "Black Jack" Pershing reviews women soldiers

Director’s Cut: Jim Theres, “The Hello Girls”

This week on Director’s Cut, it’s our pleasure to welcome the final guest of our 11th season: director Jim Theres, discussing his documentary The Hello Girls.

In a year which has seen some of the best guests and films we’ve ever had on our show, Theres is under serious pressure! But he rises to the challenge, bringing his A game in both his interview and his film.

They were known as the “Hello Girls” – American women fluent in French and English who answered the urgent call for telephone operators needed in France during World War I.

They took oaths to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps, underwent training by AT&T before boarding ships to Europe, heading to war before most of the American doughboys arrived in France, connected 26 million calls and ultimately proved to be a significant factor in winning the war.

And then they were forgotten.

Read on for more about this film, and about my interview with filmmaker Jim Theres.

The Hello Girls is one of those fascinating stories in American history that most people had never heard of – myself included! 

These women were officially addressed as soldiers – “Switchboard Soldiers,” according to General John Pershing. The name “Hello Girls” came from the American servicemen relieved to hear a familiar-sounding voice on the line instead of a French operator.

General John "Black Jack" Pershing reviews women soldiersAlthough the job of “operator” doesn’t sound all that dangerous, do not be fooled. These girls were in harm’s way quite often and never batted an eye. They served courageously and then were forgotten by the country they served.

Even though they received some recognition for their valuable work – “chief operator Grace Banker received a Distinguished Service medal when her mobile unit came under fire,” according to this account – they faced a 60-year struggle to be recognized as veterans, with all the benefits that included. By the late 1970s, when the change came through, only 18 of 223 women who had originally served remained.

Even more striking was the contrast between these women’s critical responsibilities in the war and the fact that they were still unable to vote back home. WWI ended in 1918, but the 19th Amendment, allowing women the vote, wasn’t ratified until 1920. In one archival photo, a defiant suffragette picketing the White House stands next to a banner reading as follows:

A woman stands next to a banner referring to the president as "Kaiser Wilson"KAISER WILSON

Have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed?

20,000,000 American women are not self-governed.

Take the beam out of your own eye.

Watch a clip from the film, telling the story of Oleda Joure of Marine City, Michigan. As a teenager, she needed special permission to go overseas.

Read more about Theres’ journey, and about these brave women, in this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

Host Pete Schwaba talks with Jim Theres of "The Hello Girls"The astute, award-winning Theres gave us an engaging interview. Looking very official indeed, he showed up on our set as if he’d just left a correspondents’ dinner, wearing a sharp suit that made this host look like he had just rolled in from a skate park. (For the record, although I cannot skateboard at all, I do prefer casual activewear… in case, you know, I ever suddenly decide to become “casually active.”)

His Washington-style propriety makes sense: he won several awards for his work as a public affairs officer and speechwriter for the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he discovered this story. The film had its world premiere at Arlington National Cemetery’s Women’s Memorial; watch a video of the event here.

Theres’ enthusiasm made it obvious that he was excited to be back in Wisconsin. Originally from Racine, he attended UW-Whitewater and also received an MBA from Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee.

Please join me this Friday, June 29 for my interview with Jim Theres on the season finale of Director’s Cut at 10:30 p.m. And stick around after our interview, when Director’s Cut will air the full-length film The Hello Girls.

As always, thanks for joining us all season on Wisconsin Public Television: your home for independent film. See you next year!

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