There is an object in the History Center’s permanent exhibits that you probably don’t associate with women’s history. It sits alone, with holes cut out so you can admire and wonder at its tangle of wires. Of course, I am talking about the telephone switchboard on display on the second floor. The switchboard represents not just a bygone era, but also what once served as a community hub and a gateway into new employment for women.
Switchboards were a part of the telephone industry from its earliest days through the 1960s and beyond (and don’t forget the private exchanges used by businesses and other institutions). Without the technology for automatic connections, calls had to be manually connected. If you were on a party line, then you could call directly to other numbers on that line, but calls to a number on a separate line, or to an out-of-town number, required a person to physically make the connection via the switchboard.
The original switchboard operators of the late 19th century were teenage boys, which sort of makes sense, as this would have been the group that carried messages, on foot or on bikes, across towns and cities. Losing their jobs to this new industry, they were the logical choice to become switchboard operators. Alas, being teenage boys, so the story goes, they played pranks on each other and on customers and were reputed to be quite rude. Therefore, the telephone companies fired the boys and got women – polite, compliant, gracious, well-spoken women – to fill these positions instead. And while this was probably true, the underlying reason for switching to women had to be an economic one: women could be paid one-fourth to one-half of what men would have been paid. If you needed cheap, polite labor, then of course, you’d hire women, and really not think twice about it.