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Female Telephone Operators

2009 February 25
by Hannah Mueller

The panel today was a really complete mix of different gendered professions–deeply gendered, as we noted. The first reason we noted for why professions get so gendered was that there are stereotypes and roles that make a gender more or less ‘suited’ for certain jobs. I thought it was cool that medieval women were somtimes chosen to perform eye surgery because they were used to doing delicate needlework.  Women were definitely chosen as telephone operators because their “dispositions” (defined by late Victorian standards) were approriate for dealing with obnoxious subscribers on the line. Young women were seen as–deep breath–submissive, passive, pure, honest, careful, and patient. They worked out much better than the young boys who were originally employed in the telephone exchanges, who were clowns, jokers, unruly, cranky: not at all submissive. Maybe women were not as good with technology, went the logic of the telephone company managers, but technical mistakes were more pardonable than outright rudeness to callers.

Most of my research for the panel didn’t directly relate to what we were talking about, but I want to mention it because it’s very much about gender/technology. Women operators were actually trained to be machine-like in their use of the technology. The schools set up during the 1880s by telephone companys for operators were designed to turn out “human machines” who would work quickly and accuately, and be “docile” enough to let the caller have the last word. Their responses to callers were very standardized, and they were forbidden from using the lines to talk to other operators or friends (although lots of women did subvert these rules, because, of course, women are not actually especially submissive, patient, docile, etc as a group). Basically, the women were taught how to be another piece of the machine. A great example of how convinced the male managers were that women were the perfect tools for the job: women were taught “civic listening,” meaning they were supposed to monitor calls to make sure the technology was working, but they were only to listen for sounds, not for meaning, protecting the subscriber’s privacy. Women were encouraged to see themselves as a piece of the machine in this way. It’s interesting that the female operatives at the mills, also during the 19th century, were called “operatives.” As with telephone “operators,” the managers use language as part of a teaching process to automate their female workers in order to increase efficiency and prevent protests.

Another thing I thought was weird was that the schools were teaching women how to be careful, docile workers, when originally they were chosen because they presumeably already had those characteristics as women. Again we see, gender is not innate but taught.

And the gender performance taught here, is the peformance of a machine. Why were there so many qualities in common between women and machines in these workplaces, and do we see a similar connection today? Are women gendered as machines? Are machines gendered female?

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    February 25, 2009

    My father ran a small independent telephone company, and all my summer jobs, as a teenager, were as a telephone operator. We were trained into the sort of submissiveness that Hannah describes (and we had to wear dresses, though we worked in a windowless room where no one could see us). But we really were pretty naughty. Although we were explictly trained not to, we quite often listened in on conversations (my strongest memory, Diana, was of the many truck drivers who would call their wives, and say they couldn’t get home that night; then call their girlfriends, and say they would be right there….). Sometimes, we would even go so far as to make trouble, blowing these guys’ cover, calling their wives to say, “That call you just received, from….?”

    So: the work was certainly mechanized. But we weren’t. Refused to be.

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