Transcript of “Hello Girls” Fight Back
Written by Lindsey Beckley from Research by Donald Edward Jones and Supplemented with original Research
Produced by Lindsey Beckley and Jill Weiss Simins:
[Rotary Telephone being dialed]
Lindsey Beckley: If you’re a young woman, between 17 and 26 years of age, with a grammar school education, who speaks unaccented English, is unmarried, has an arm stretch of at least 5 feet, a sitting height of 32 inches, good eyesight, unimpaired hearing, a pleasant voice, a patient and courteous disposition, a neat appearance, and can pass a blood test to clear you of any heart diseases, boy do I have a job for you. Then again, perhaps not. For once you pass this litmus test, the job you face requires you to work at a “pace which kills” – and that job is switchboard operating.
Woman’s Voice from Historic Footage: Perhaps you’re never seen an operating room. You’ll find it very interesting.
Beckley: On this episode, we’ll discuss the harsh conditions of switchboard operators in the 19 teens – and 13 women from Linton, Indiana who, along with their entire town, took on the Indiana militia in an effort to better those conditions.
Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley. And this is Talking Hoosier History.
A lot was expected of Telephone Switchboard operators in 1919. In a single hour, a “hello girl” was expected to transfer up to 600 calls – that’s 1 call every 6 seconds. During each of those calls the operator would see a small light glowing, indicating someone was on the line. She would plug into the jack associated with that line and answer “Number, Please?” Once the caller gave the number, the operator would repeat each digit back to the caller. She would then test the line of the receiving party before connecting the call by plugging into the appropriate jack. All in 6 seconds.
[Sounds of an operating room]
Beckley: And that 6 second average wasn’t just a guideline. Telephone switchboard operators were considered some of the most heavily supervised workers of the time. Stopwatches were used to ensure efficient operation. Supervisors were able to plug in to any operators’ calls to ensure the proper “phraseology” was being used. And, as if that wasn’t enough, most companies also employed “service testers,” which are kind of like secret shoppers in today’s retail stores. They’d call in, take detailed notes on any errors made by the operator, and compile a report for management to review. One Boston operator said,
Voice actor reading from newspaper: Inside the central office an operator is supervised, tested, observed, disciplined, almost to the breaking point. It is scarcely possible for her to obey any natural impulse without breaking a rule. She must not move her head to the left or right; she must not indulge in social conversation…she must sit, even when not engaged in operating, if such a moment ever comes, with plug in hand ready to answer…
Beckley: This heavy oversight, restrictive work environment, and breakneck work pace, combined with low wages and limited opportunity for advancement, led to a series of telephone operators’ strikes throughout the United States between 1917 and 1919.
Beckley: By that time, there was a long history of women striking for better working conditions in America. One of the most notable of these was in 1910, when 20,000 garment factory workers in New York City struck for 13 weeks for improved working conditions and better pay. The strikes were largely successful – over 300 companies capitulated to the women’s demands. One of the few that resisted reform was the Triangle Waist Company. One year after the strike, a devastating fire ripped through the Triangle Waist Factory resulting in 146 deaths – overwhelmingly women. This tragedy highlighted the cost of the owner’s reluctance to reform and the resulting outrage sparked new strikes and labor laws.
Less than a decade later, in the wake of World War I, inflation had doubled the cost of food and tripled the cost of clothing. Wage increases weren’t even close to keeping up. In 1919, the same year as the Linton Strike, labor unrest was at an unprecedented height. That year, nearly one fifth of the nation’s workforce went on strike at some point. But for all that, what happened in Linton, Indiana was unique.
Beckley: On Thursday, April 24, 1919, 13 women took off their headsets and staged a walk out at the New Home Telephone Company in Linton, Greene County, Indiana. Strikes were a fairly regular occurrence in the small town where nearly every working person was a union member. And at first, this strike seemed no different than previous strikes.
Beckley: The demands were reasonable enough – the women wanted $8 a week minimum pay, an 8 hour work day, and, more importantly, they wanted the company to recognize their union. The next day, the company brought in 8 women from Indianapolis to work the lines and keep telephone service going. And this is where the strike turned from a typical labor stoppage to something quite different.
With the strikebreakers, telephone service in the town continued throughout the week, but tensions were mounting. As news spread of the strikebreakers being brought in to Linton, the union workers of the town rose in outrage.
Two men, who had recently returned from the WWI front, donned their military uniforms, climbed to the top of the building, lowered the American flag, and took it to a nearby house, saying that the American flag should not fly over such a place. While the men scaled the building, Verna Talbott fired two shots at them, thinking they were trying to force their way into the building. Fortunately, both shots missed their targets.
The crowd around the building grew more and more riotous as time passed and began throwing stones and rocks, breaking many of the windows and leaving the floors strewn with broken glass. Strikebreaker Ruby Stevens fled to the roof, where the Greene County sheriff, Isaac Wines, and Mayor Miller later found her and took her to a nearby hotel before returning to the site of the riot.
A so called “indignation meeting” was scheduled for Monday evening in support of the striking women. Both the Mayor and Sherriff of Linton attended the meeting, hoping to assess the situation and maintain the peace. While there, Mayor Andrew Miller made a speech advocating for law and order and advising the attendees against any “rash actions.”
Apparently his words had little effect on those in the crowd because directly after the meeting, the crowd spilled out to the streets and made their way to the telephone building, where two of the replacement operators, Verna Talbott and Ruby Stevens, along with the telephone company manager Harley Guthrie, were posted. The crowd, estimated to be between 500 and 1000, surrounded the building and demanded that the outside operators be removed and returned to Indianapolis.
The crowd wasn’t satisfied with the departure of Miss Stevens, though, and demanded that the one remaining operator leave the building before negotiations commenced. Talbott finally agreed to leave after being warned by the police chief that she may be killed if she stayed any longer. When she walked out of the building, the crowed parted and she walked among boos and jeers to the same nearby hotel where all the other strikebreakers were staying.
The striking Linton telephone operators had one more demand before they were willing to come to the table. New Home Telephone Company manager Harley Guthrie had to leave the building. This was a demand that Guthrie, Mayor Miller, and others inside the building were unwilling to meet. So, those remaining inside the telephone building, all of whom were armed, hunkered down and called for reinforcements.
The next day, April 29, newspaper headlines across the state declared:
Voice actor reading form newspaper: Linton Under Martial Law!
Beckley: The ordeal made front page news as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas, Montpelier, Vermont, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, beating out coverage of soldiers returning from the war front.
You see, the night before, when Mayor Miller called for backup, he wasn’t calling in the local police, or even the sheriff’s office. No, he knew local law enforcement would be unable to deal with this situation. Instead, he called the Governor of Indiana, James Goodrich, and asked him to send in the Indiana militia. And he did.
Adjutant General of Indiana, Harry Smith, arrived in Linton at around 5:00 am on Tuesday, April 29 to assess the situation. At 8:10, Governor Goodrich officially declared Linton to be under Martial Law, saying
Voice Actor reading from proclamation: I, James P. Goodrich,…do hereby proclaim and declare said city and its immediate environments to be in the state of riot and insurrection against the laws of the commonwealth and the peace and dignity of the state, and do hereby proclaim martial law throughout said city and throughout the territory adjacent thereto, and for a distance of five miles in all directions…and do hereby command all turbulent and disorderly persons immediately to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective homes …
Beckley: He also gave a statement to the Indianapolis News underlining his feelings on the subject:
Voice actor reading from newspaper: The riot at Linton last night is a disgrace to the citizenship of Linton and Greene county and a blot upon the fair name of Indiana. The mayor of Linton and the sheriff of Greene county have signed a statement admitting their inability to enforce the law and stating that they were unable to secure aid from citizens of the county to uphold the law. If these gentlemen tell the truth, their statement is a reflection upon the good name of Greene county and any citizen who was called upon to aid the officers and did not has himself become a violator of the law.
Beckley: So, in his estimation, not only were the protesters themselves a blot upon the fair name of Indiana, but everyone in Linton who hadn’t stepped up to help put down the protests was a criminal.
Beckley: Soon after martial law was declared, 2 companies of Indiana militia, one from Terre Haute and one from Sullivan, were deployed to the town. When they arrived, they met a crowd of over 2000 townspeople, many of them miners who had stayed out of the mines for the day in order to support the striking telephone operators.
Beckley: They weren’t the only ones rising in support. Shop owners all over town closed their doors. Women crowded the streets, children in tow. Restaurants refused to serve the militia men. People called the telephone company and demanded that their phones be removed from their home within 24 hours threatening to rip the phone from the wall. Linton was in the midst of a general strike.
As the militia advanced through the town, the crowd parted to allow them to pass, but quickly closed ranks behind them, totally surrounding the soldiers. The throng booed and hissed as the troops passed. In the business section of town, a large group of uniformed WWI veterans rallied around an American flag and marched to the telephone company, where the militiamen and General Smith were stationed.
When the vets their destination, Smith faced them and reprimanded them for having the audacity to take such action while in uniform. For an instant, it seemed that his words may quell the protesters. But then someone in the crowd shouted “slug him!” to which Smith replied that there “would be no such tactics” before hastily retreating to the safety of the telephone building.
Beckley: The assembled masses surged forward, throwing bricks and coal into the already shattered windows. Militiamen patrolling the streets were assaulted by the mob, their guns torn from their hands and thrown to the street and the men kicked to the side. Inside the building, three men, including General Smith, were struck by flying debris.
Realizing that they were close to losing any semblance of control, Smith ordered the militia to shoot into the crowd. When the soldiers raised their guns, they saw that the front of the crowd was composed mostly of women and children. Being reluctant to fire upon them, the militia lifted their weapons and fired over the heads of the mob. One protester was injured when a bullet grazed his forehead.
Through all of this, several of the telephone operators who had been brought in from Indianapolis were apparently attempting to work at the switchboards in the building. It was agreed that it was high time for them to get out of dodge and so a portion of the uniformed protesters formed two lines and allowed the women to pass through the crowd.
With that perceived victory, the crowd moved to their next demand – the militia needed to leave the town. One newspaper from a nearby town summed up the thoughts of Linton’s citizenry on having what was essentially a small army invade their town.
Voice actor reading from newspaper: The good name of the city of Linton and its many hundreds of good law abiding citizens has been smirched by the coming of armed soldiers to quell a little three-girl riot…The whole thing hinges on the fact that a bunch of officials who had at some time traded backbones with a set of Goose Pond fishing worms crawled shiningly into the telephone building and yelled lustily for the state troops to come quickly…we’ll wager two bits there were less than six culprits.
Beckley: Workers from Linton and surrounding areas refused to return to work while their town hosted these outsiders. All business in the town was at a standstill until the Linton telephone operators’ demands were met. Facing this community solidarity, Governor Goodrich agreed to get the troops out of the street and send committee to the city to investigate the situation and arbitrate an agreement.
The Governor’s agreement, as well as an agreement from the New Home Telephone management to address the concerns of the operators, was announced to the assemblage from the steps of city hall.
And with that, the throng dissipated and returned to their homes. The next day, when the Governor’s commission reached the city, a temporary agreement was reached.
Beckley: The operators agreed to return to their posts for at least the next two weeks and the New Home Telephone Company agreed to a 40% wage increase, an 8 hour work day as opposed to the 9 hour day they had previously mandated and the striking women received full back pay for the duration of the strike. Another demand made by the striking women was that Maude Sherb, the chief operator, be dismissed, as she had crossed the picket line and continued working throughout the strike. Consequently, she was fired and Thelma Anderson, the leader of the unofficial operators’ union, replaced her. While this sounds like the strikers got quite a lot out of the agreement, the telephone company still wouldn’t recognize the operators’ union.
After 2 weeks, when New Home still refused to recognize the union at the end of the temporary agreement, the operators went on strike again. This time, however, it was a much calmer affair. The company had learned their lesson and decided not to bring in outside workers to continue operations. Thus, the people of Linton didn’t rally as they had previously and there was no need to call in the militia.
This second strike lasted for 9 weeks, all the while the town of Linton had no telephone service. Although there were appeals from Linton businesses for the strike to end, the New Home Telephone Company didn’t feel the same pressure to capitulate as they did in the face of the violence of the first strike. So, the strike ended after 9 weeks with the Operator’s union still not recognized by the company.
While the second strike didn’t have any direct outcomes, the Linton Telephone Operators’ actions had a lasting effect on the community. Before the operator strike had even ended, another group of female workers in the area went on strike – this time, it was the teachers of Stockton Township, which is just outside of Linton. It’s impossible to think that the teacher’s strike was uninfluenced by that of the operator’s. Indeed, in a mass meeting much like the “indignation meeting” held in support of the operator’s strike, teachers called for another general strike to be carried out in support of the cause. However, the feat was not to be repeated and, while the strike did last for 3 months and even caused several schools to push back their start date, the teachers did not receive the same community support that had been shown for the operators.
Beckley: 1919 was the high point in labor activism for years to come. There wouldn’t be a year with as many strikes or as much union activity until the height of the Great Depression. At that point, union membership began to rise again and peaked in 1954 at nearly 30 percent of workers. Since then, union membership has declined dramatically. In 2017, less than 11 percent of American workers were in a union.
Today, while unions aren’t as mainstream as they once were they’re still very much a part of America, as we saw with the recent teacher’s strikes across the country. In addition, grassroots activity like the Occupy Movement of 2011 and, more recently, the fight for 15 movement, are using some of the same tactics used by unions in the past to accomplish similar objectives.
[Sounds of an operating room]
Beckley: Labor movements have a long, mixed history in America and the Linton Telephone Operator’s strike of 1919 is just one small, yet fascinating, part of it.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Newspaper excerpts read by Justin Clark. Visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook at @talkhoosierhist and like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.