Women played an influential role in the telecommunications system of the United States during much of the 20th century. They helped customers make long-distance calls, provided information, and ensured that the system worked smoothly. The Bell Telephone Company (later known as American Telephone and Telegraph Company or AT&T) hired teenage boys to be telephone operators in the 1870s despite being primarily regarded as a female profession. The boys frequently proved rude and unruly, so young women were hired since they were naturally polite.
“The voice with a smile” was AT&T’s famous slogan from the 1930s through the 1950s. In the ads, the happy voice of the phone worker was visualized behind a pretty face painted by the company’s female operators. Operators’ speech was strictly regulated by supervisors listening unannounced on their lines and enforcing strict codes of appropriate responses.
From the beginning, switchboard operators were almost exclusively women. Women were valued not only for their gentle voices and nimble fingers but also because they worked for lower wages. In the 1930s and 1950s, AT&T recruited female employees through women’s magazines such as American Girl, Senior Prom, and True Story, along with ads for weight loss, feminine itch relief, and bust creams. Advertisements emphasized the importance of women to the telephone industry. According to one advertisement, there are 170,000 women employed by the Bell system. The Bell System employs 315,000 people, more than half of whom are women. They live in the same area as you and are your friends and neighbors. About ten years is the average length of service.”