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Emma M. Nutt Day

Today we honor Emma M. Nutt, the first female telephone operator in the world, who started her job as an operator on September 1, 1878, at the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company in Boston. At that time, the telephone had been around for just a few years, and telephone operators had been around for an even shorter period of time. Operators worked at telephone exchanges that had switchboards. Callers spoke to one of these switchboard operators, and the operator connected them to the person they wished to call. Not only did operators connect calls, but they also answered questions for customers.

The first commercial switchboard went into operation in January 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut. It was made of handles from teapot lids, bustle wire, and carriage bolts. Later that same month, Edward Holmes, who had a Boston home security company that used a telegraph, decided that using a telephone would be a good business move, and opened the Telephone Dispatch Company. Like other telephone exchanges of the time, he hired teenage boys to work the switchboard. But operators at his company and elsewhere gained a reputation for being rude. He came to the conclusion that having immature boys working the switchboard might endanger his business. None other than Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, came up with the idea of hiring women to replace teenage boys, who would display a more presentable image for customers.

Holmes was friends with Bell, and Bell licensed telephones to his company. It was Bell who hired Emma Nutt, who had previously been working at a telegraph job, on today's date in 1878. Her sister, Stella, started working at the same company later the same day. Emma Nutt was known for her patience and for her cultured, soothing voice. She started out working 54 hours a week for $10 pay, and she worked as an operator for 33 years. Ultimately, it was on account of Nutt that a new profession was created for women. Other telephone companies followed suit in hiring women, and by the end of the 1880s, it was exclusively a female profession.

Many women embraced the new job opportunity, as it wasn't domestic service or factory work. But it did have some drawbacks. Women had to pass height, weight, and arm length tests to get the job; they had to sit in tight quarters in straight-backed chairs; they had to display a great amount of patience if customers were rude; they weren't allowed to communicate with fellow workers, and their pay was not that substantial. Their work could also be tedious: on average, they had to say "number please" 120 times an hour for eight hours straight.

In response to some of their grievances, telephone operators went on strike in 1919. They shut down phone operations around New England and eventually won a wage increase. Decades later, in 1973, a group of women filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), taking issue that almost all telephone operators were still women, while there was a scarcity of women working in other telecommunications positions. The EEOC got the American Telephone and Telegraph Company to sign an agreement to open all jobs in the company to both sexes. However, the change seemed to help males out more: it brought in more male phone operators, but the number of women who worked as lineman or telephone installers did not increase at the same rate. Despite the inequities in the field, the telephone switchboard operator profession provided work for many women for decades, and today we celebrate Emma M. Nutt for being a pioneer in this profession.

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