In the 1920s, a telephone operator was one of the few respectable career choices for young women working outside the home. This silent film, from 1929, takes you on the journey of one woman as she moves from humble job applicant all the way up to Chief Operator—a big deal at the time.
In 1915, there were over 70,000 women working as telephone operators within the Bell System. Overall, by 1920, there were over 170,000 operators in the entire United States—and that figure made up a small, but significant percentage of working women at the time (approximately 8.3 million). Notably, the role of operator was considered a middle-class job. Women were skilled, but the work required precision and tact, not hard physical labor. At the job’s peak, in late 1940s, more than 350,000 women worked as telephone operators for AT&T. The number of operators in the U.S. declined after that period, due to improved automation for switching systems and wider adoption of direct-dial telephones.
The figure of the telephone operator occupied a solid place in pre- and post-war popular culture. Actresses such as Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Colleen Moore, and even Marilyn Monroe played telephone operators in both silent and sound films (though Monroe’s operator-on-film gig was voice-only—and happened to be her first film role).
Footage Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ