On September 1st, we celebrate Emma Nutt. Emma was a working woman pioneer who holds the prestigious honor of being the first female telephone operator in history, even being hired by Mr. Alexander Graham Bell himself. Emma’s employment on September 1, 1878 was a monumental event on several levels – the first and obvious being she was a woman and women did not typically hold paying jobs outside of their homes. In addition, prior to Emma’s onboarding, most telephone operators were teenage boys or young men. It had been found that the male operators were impatient and rude, even going as far as unacceptable language and prank calls.
The telecommunications process at the time of Emma’s hire was not a system we would recognize today, and certainly not a device that would fit into a pocket or handbag. The first telephone weighed nearly two pounds and cost $3,995. Although this invention would prove invaluable for the future of telecommunications, telephones initially had to be rented in pairs which limited communication to only those with access to the stationary set-up. Eventually technology evolved, and a central exchange was developed. The first central exchanges were floor to ceiling behemoths that required ladders to reach all exchanges. As this proved cumbersome and inefficient, the system was soon replaced by a Divided Multiple Switchboard that allowed teams of operators to work together through enhanced automation.
Emma opened the door for future female operators who considered the work a professional position and far removed from the other work that was available to women at the time - domestic or factory positions. Although a career as an operator may have been viewed as professional, there were still many hurdles to overcome just to obtain the position. Because of the limited space and physical demands, candidates had to pass height, weight, arm length, and posture tests. Candidates had to be unmarried and within 17 to 26 years old. Operators were not permitted to speak with each other and in some roles, they repeated “Number please” an average of 120 times an hour. The pay was paltry as it has been recorded that Emma was compensated only $10 per month for a 54-hour workweek. Alas, Emma remained at her position for over 30 years.
While we may consider these requirements for an operator career to be draconian, many careers still have physical requirements for safety and efficiency purposes. However, harsh circumstances and low pay did eventually lead the women to organize and strike in 1919 at which time they were able to win a wage increase, shift policy changes, and a guarantee for their right to organize.
The initial strike resulted in not only to better wages and conditions for the operators. As the public and private sector were crippled by the disruption of services, it was realized that the dependence on human operators was not advantageous or prudent for the future of telecommunications. Technology was soon developed to automate the connection process. Emma Nutt was not only a trailblazer for career women, she also unknowingly initiated technological advances that continue to enhance our telecommunication experience.
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