MY SISTERS TELEGRAPHIC:
THE LETTERS OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY
By Thomas C. Jepsen
515 Morgan Creek Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Copyright 1993 by Thomas C. Jepsen
Many believe that women first entered the telecommunications industry as telephone operators, to replace the unruly boys who were employed to operate switchboards. However, when the telephone was first publicly demonstrated, in 1876, women had already been part of telecommunications technology for thirty years - as telegraph operators and managers. A person witnessing the first demonstration of the telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, who wanted to send home a report of the new invention, had only to stroll over to the Women's Pavilion, where the women operators at the American District Telegraph office provided communications for fairgoers.1
Today we are surprised to learn of women's early participation in what was then a "high-technology" industry; yet to the average person living in the 1870's, women telegraphers were such a commonplace that a picture of an "average" telegraph station in Harper's Magazine in 1873 showed a woman at the key, with only a single casual reference in the text to her sex.2
The visible presence of women in the telegraph industry in the 1870's was due to the confluence of a number of economic and social forces. One was the active encouragement of Western Union, the industry giant, which saw an opportunity to lower operating costs by employing more women as operators. Another was the effort on the part of the women operators themselves to gain equality and recognition in the telegraph office.3
The number of women in the profession increased dramatically during the Civil War, due to male telegraphers being drafted into the Military Telegraph Corps of the Union army. This created hundreds of vacancies in civilian telegraph offices, many of which were filled by women who had acquired telegraphic skills.4
Women tended to learn telegraphy by serving as apprentices to more experienced operators, who often were women as well. Maria Hogan, a cousin of Andrew Carnegie, maintained an informal school for women in her telegraph office in Pittsburgh in the 1860's. Among the women operators of the Deseret Telegraph in Utah, it was not unusual to find three generations of women in the same family working as telegraph operators, with each generation passing along telegraphic skills to the next. Mary Macaulay, who later would become International Vice President of the Commercial Telegraphers' Union of America, learned telegraphy at the age of thirteen from Mrs. Nellie Chaddock, the operator at the railroad depot in Le Roy, New York. This system of networking, both formal and informal, is an important way in which women operators "feminized" their work.5
As the Civil War came to an end and the men began to return home, competition for jobs arose. Women operators had come to view themselves as technical professionals, and were unwilling to abandon the skills they had acquired and return to more traditional domestic roles. Also, many had become the sole family breadwinner, due to the loss of a husband or father. A debate arose in the pages of the Telegrapher over the role of women in the telegraph industry; the language is often modern and confrontational in tone.
By analyzing the discourse that took place in the Telegrapher in the late 1860's, we can gain an understanding of what the real gender issues were for women in the telegraph industry. Little interpretation is required; both women and men stated their beliefs and feelings directly and clearly, making use of the high degree of literacy required by their work.
The first gender issue that emerged was whether or not women would be admitted to the craft as equal members. The Telegrapher was the journal of the National Telegraphic Union, a mild-mannered sort of a union founded to promote the interests of the telegraphers. One of the main benefits of membership was a mutual benefit fund which aided out-of-work and retired members. The NTU had been an all-male organization since its formation in 1863; however, in the second issue of the Telegrapher (October 31, 1864), a female operator, who signed her letter "Susannah", wrote in to ask if the NTU would admit women as members:
Can a young lady operator join the "Union" without marrying one of its members? You know that we - that is, your sister operators - are rapidly growing in numbers, and I am so simple I cannot see why we should be excluded from the benefits of your association.
"Susannah" received a light and generally affirmative answer from the editor, Lewis Smith, who said that he knew "of no reason why she and her sisters cannot become members, providing they meet the qualifications."6
Susannah's letter provoked a response from a male operator using the pseudonym "Spark", who raised a second issue - the technical skills and competence of women operators. Spark said he was glad to see women operators apply for membership, as long as they "timidly and modestly" knocked at the gate. However, he added that "a prejudice exists in the minds of some of the male members of the profession, against the employment of ladies as operators," due to what he termed "the indisputable fact, that much the larger proportion of errors, in transmitting and receiving messages, are made by the female operators."7
According to "Spark", women operators were guilty of "clipping", or failing to give the correct duration to dot and dashes; bad penmanship; and an "overbearing and uncourteous manner of transacting business over the wires."
A woman operator under the name of "Lightning" responded in the December issue that men tended to be more critical of women operators than of each other: "the first time we fail to receive a message while they are thinking of sending it, what a time there is! Just as if we knew who was married or dead, without being told!"
The December 1864 issue also contained a response from a woman operator who signed herself "134", telegraphic slang for "who is at the key?"
We know there is a prejudice against lady operators, and the very word he uses, "prejudice", ...which, according to Webster means premature opinion; injury; damage, admits that it is merely a myth. ...in fact, Sir, when you look closely into the matter, I think you will see that those who criticise most are those who possess few superior qualities for business themselves... Are you quite sure that, taking the whole, the larger proportion of errors are made by the lady operators? I know very little about your city operators, but I do know ladies, in our country offices, whom I would put second to none in point of business capacity, and where errors are unknown. ...Sir, I insist that, in justice to all, you ought to retract from that statement.8
The pseudonym she employs - "Who is at the key?" - is itself a subtle comment on the gender issue. Telegraphy, although regarded as "men's work", was actually gender-neutral in that an operator had no way of knowing the gender of the person at the other end of the wire. Although claims were made that there was a distinctly "female" style of sending (and an associated higher level of errors), there are numerous anecdotal accounts of male operators who were surprised to learn that the "man" on the other end of the line was in fact a woman.9
The real motivation behind the accusations that women made more mistakes than men was fear, according to "S.W.D.", a former telegraphic manager. In his experience, women "did the business as promptly, satisfactorily, and with as little cause for complaint as did the same number of gentlemen"; he adds pointedly that "their offices were models of neatness." He asserts that men accuse women of being incompetent because "they instinctively shrink from acknowledging any fear of the other sex; therefore, as the cry of "incapacity," if heeded, will secure the same result, they adopt it as the more politic..."10
In the December 24, 1864 issue, a letter from "T. A.", a male operator, raises the gender issue that was of greatest significance to the male operators - the threat of women taking jobs away from men. He points out that the American Telegraph Company, under the leadership of General Marshall K. Lefferts, was training women in Morse telegraphy free of charge, in hopes of employing them in its offices. Since women will work for a lower wage than men, he alleges, they will eventually replace men in the telegraph office. He concludes that "What operators should do to protect themselves from 'hard times' is to keep the ladies out of the National Telegraphic Union, and also as much as possible off the lines."11
T.A.'s comments escalated the level of the debate. His letter received an angry response from "Magnetta" in the February 27, 1865 issue, in which she accuses him of hypocrisy and selfishness:
I asked myself, do I live in the nineteenth century...? or are the days of barbarism rolling back upon us, and are we to do homage to the god of selfishness?...All the spleen that may be vented will not assure us that General Lefferts, in opening a way for ladies to become operators, does it from such selfish motives as those stated. Henry Ward Beecher, and John B. Gough, strive in their lectures to convince people of woman's proper sphere. General Lefferts does more; he gives us a helping hand, and places us where we can prove ourselves equal to the best of you, if only we persevere.
"Protect from hard times - keep ladies out of Union; also off the lines!" Sir! you weighed your soul in that remark! ...But how I shudder as I imagine your mother at home washing your linen, while your sister blacks your boots!
If I have brought "hard times" to your door by being allowed on the lines, I earnestly wish your soul may find ample field for expansion, and you be promoted to message boy, with a salary of fifty cents per day!12
It is worth noting that the position of messenger boy, the lowest-paying job in the telegraph office, was also the only job that was reserved for males only.
In September 1865, the National Telegraphic Union held its convention in Chicago. A resolution that would have allowed women to be admitted as members was voted down after a speech by Delegate J. W. Stover of Boston, in which he claimed that "female operators were no honor to the profession", and that telegraphic superintendents, finding women operators to be incompetent, were "weeding them out."13 The controversy that resulted from his statement carried over into the daily press. Mrs. M. E. Lewis, a New York telegrapher, wrote in the New York Times of November 26, 1865 that "There are lady telegraphers who are both an honor and an ornament to the profession." She maintained that "instead of superintendents being 'weeding them out,' they are most of them opening the door still wider for their employment, and in many cases award them the meed of being more efficient than men."14
Stover responded in the Telegrapher for January 15, 1866 that telegraphy was not a proper occupation for women, since it "brings them in contact with too many of the rough corners of the world, and requires an understanding of such matters as a womanly woman cannot be expected to possess." Thus he implied that women operators who succeeded were therefore "unwomanly" by definition. Stover's charges were a restatement of the "separate spheres" ideology of women's work in the nineteenth century, in which women's proper place was the domestic sphere; women entered the working world only at the risk of their "femininity".15
The primary issue that emerged in the debate between Stover and Mrs. Lewis was that of business skills. The majority of women operators, particularly in the early years before 1870, worked in small one-operator offices, generally in railroad depots in rural areas. A small telegraph office was basically a small business; running a telegraph office was an aspect of business proprietorship by women in the nineteenth century which has been largely overlooked. In addition to sending and receiving messages, the operator had to deal with the public, maintain the equipment, and do bookkeeping.
Mrs. Lewis stated in her response to Stover in the February 1, 1866 issue of the Telegrapher that "It is men's fault if women do not understand business. If men did right, all women would be taught business enough while at school or afterwards, to fit them for managing their own affairs... The assertion that womanly women cannot understand business is thoroughly disproved by the fact that many of them do."
As for Stover's statement that telegraphy would bring women into contact with the "rough corners" of the world, Mrs. Lewis replied that
It is unsafe to argue that business is so dirty that women must not touch it. It is like arguing that politics are so dirty that clergymen must have none. It is a mistake to drive cleanly people away from either. It would be better to help the cleanly people expel the dirt.
Mrs. Lewis provides an interesting rebuttal to the "separate spheres" notion of women's work by arguing that telegraphy requires the same skill set as housework:
Woman's sphere, according to him, is keeping house. Now, exactly the qualities for a good housekeeper are those for a good telegrapher - patience, faithfulness, careful attention to numerous and tiresome little details. If women are not on an average altogether superior to men in those qualities, I am in error.16
Stover's assertion that women's success in telegraphy was achieved at the loss of their femininity received a sarcastic response from "Josie" in the March 1, 1866 issue of the Telegrapher:
My sister operators, what think you of that gentleman's last effort? And you, gentlemen, members of the N.T.U. or otherwise, are you not interested here? How do Mr. Stover's strictures effect the ladies whom some of you have married, and who were formerly telegraphers, and competent ones, too. We fear you have made a sad mistake; you have each made your own a wife who, of necessity, lacks in "sensitiveness and womanly traits," and, terrible thought, "is strong-minded and self-confident."
Nor is it at all a matter for congratulation that these, your wives, were successful operators, possessing a knowledge of business necessary to their profession. Oh! no, that proves them to be "unwomanly", "possessing masculine characteristics", etc. Well, you are subjects for commiseration, and you have ours...17
Thus by publicly debating their critics and challenging those who tried to shut them out of the workplace, women telegraph operators achieved visibility and recognition in their craft, well before Western Union began to promote the entry of women into the profession. The numbers of women engaged in telegraphy grew steadily during the 1870's; census and industry figures, which almost certainly err on the low side, showed the percentage of women operators growing from four percent in 1870 to eight percent in 1877.18
Little research been done on the lives and work of women telegraphers, though they were numerous in the last century and the early part of this century. Many are still alive today and able to give testimony about their working lives. Yet much of the early history - how women got into telegraphy, how they were viewed by their male co-workers, how they struggled to establish their own identity - is missing. This is partly because the existing historiography is male-dominated; but it is also due to the unique position occupied by telegraphers in the nineteenth century workplace. They were "information workers" and "technicians" before these terms existed. Male and female telegraph operators alike were regarded with awe by a public that little understood the workings of the "lightning machine" that sent messages from place to place almost instantaneously. As Minnie Swan Mitchell remarked about her career as a telegrapher in the 1880's,
It meant something, in those... years, to be a telegraph operator. They were looked upon with wonder as possessing knowledge which separated them from the rest of the crowd.19
There are some surprising parallels between the experiences of nineteenth century women telegraphers and the twentieth-century story of women in the field of computer programming. Some of these similarities are technically based; the telegrapher's work, like that of a modern computer programmer, consisted of translating English-language instructions into machine-readable codes. Morse Code is, in fact, a direct ancestor of the ASCII codes used by software programmers. The computer itself is the direct descendant of the telegraph; as Carolyn Marvin observed in When Old Technologies Were New,
In a historical sense, the computer is no more than an instantaneous telegraph with a prodigious memory, and all the communications inventions in between have simply been elaborations on the telegraph's original work.20
Like women telegraphers, women computer programmers today constitute a significant minority within their profession; 1986 figures show 28 percent of all computer programmers to be women.
There is another striking parallel; the absence of women's history. Ruth Perry and Lisa Greber, writing on women's relationship to computers in the Autumn 1990 issue of Signs, said that
Research on the history of the computer and its relationship to women still needs to be done because much of the early history is missing. The currently available history underwrites the standard story of the computer's masculine roots. The unwritten history may tell a slightly different tale.21
For those who have studied the story of women in the telegraph industry, there is a strong sense of deja vu in these words. They are as applicable to the women telegraphers of one hundred years ago as they are to the women computer specialists of today.
Thus rediscovering the history of women in telegraphy serves a dual purpose. Not only does it illuminate a little-understood area of nineteenth-century women's work, it also gives us a deep historical perspective on the role of women in technology, and how women in the past have sought to gain control over their professional lives and recognition in their fields. We can better understand the future by reclaiming the past.
1T. J. Schlereth, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life (New York: 1991), p. 4; J. S. Ingram, The Centennial Exhibition, Described and Illustrated (Philadelphia: 1876), pp. 712-13. Sarah G. Bagley, the first woman to enter telegraphy as a profession, had already achieved recognition as a writer, organizer, and founder of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association when she was appointed operator and superintendent of the Lowell office of the New York and Boston Magnetic Telegraph Company in 1846. This was less than two years after Samuel Morse first demonstrated his invention in 1844. She exemplified the high degree of literacy and working class background that typified women who would later enter the field; see Helena Wright, "Sarah G. Bagley: A Biographical Note", Labor History, Summer 1979, pp. 398-413. Women entered the profession in gradually increasing numbers during the 1850's; as census records did not identify workers by sex, we know of them chiefly through mention in the telegraphic trade journals. James D. Reid's The Telegraph In America: Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: 1879), contains the earliest attempt to document the history of women in the telegraph industry; see especially pp. 170-1 and 357.
2"The Telegraph", Harpers Magazine, August 1873, 332.
3Western Union established a school to teach telegraphy to women at Cooper Union in New York City in 1869; see Journal of the Telegraph, January 15, 1869, 42; February 15, 1869, 70.
4Melodie Andrews, "What the Girls Can Do," Essays in Economic and Business History 8 (1990), 110.
5Andrew Carnegie, Autobiography (Boston and New York: 1920), p. 70; Kate B. Carter, The Story of Telegraphy. (Salt Lake City: 1961), pp. 531-571; correspondence, Lynne Belluscio, LeRoy Historical Society, LeRoy, New York.
6Robert L. Thompson, Wiring A Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States 1832-1866 (Princeton, NJ: 1947), pp. 389-390; Telegrapher, October 31, 1864, 16.
7Telegrapher, November 28, 1864, 20.
8Telegrapher, December 26, 1864, 32.
9Shirley Tillotson, " 'We may all soon be 'first-class men'': Gender and skill in Canada's early twentieth century urban telegraph industry," Labour/Le Travail 27 (Spring 1991), 117.
10Telegrapher, February 27, 1865, 61, 62.
11Telegrapher, December 26, 1864, 32.
12Telegrapher, February 27, 1865, 61.
13Telegrapher Supplement, November 6, 1865, 12-13.
14New York Times, November 26, 1865.
15Telegrapher, January 15, 1866, 33; Margery Davies discusses the "threat to femininity" posed by the workplace in Woman's Place Is at the Typewriter (Philadelphia: 1982), pp. 80-81.
16Telegrapher, February 1, 1866, 42.
17Telegrapher, March 1, 1866, 68.
18Edwin Gabler, The American Telegrapher: A Social History 1860-1900 (New Brunswick, NJ: 1988), p. 109. The Census of 1870, the first to differentiate occupational categories by sex, shows 4 percent of telegraph operators to be women, or 355; the percentage increases to 12 percent, or 7229, in the Census of 1900. These figures almost certainly err on the low side; for an analysis of the underrepresentation of working women in the Census, see Margo Anderson, "The History of Women and the History of Statistics", Journal of Women's History, Vol. 4 Nr. 1 (Spring 1992), 14-36. Eugene J. O'Connor, an official of the Brotherhood of Telegraphers, testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1883 that he believed 20 percent of operators to be women (Chicago Tribune, August 15, 1883); in the same year, Superintendent Walter Humstone of Western Union placed the figure at 25 percent (New York Herald, July 28, 1883).
19Minnie Swan Mitchell, "Lingo of Telegraph Operators", American Speech, April 1937, 154-5.
20Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (New York: 1989), p. 3.
21Ruth Perry and Lisa Greber, "Women and Computers: An Introduction", Signs, (Autumn 1990), 85-7.