Women Telephone Operators on Strike – April 20, 1919

While women were preferred by customers hearing that important question “Number please?” – the working conditions and wage for these women in the emerging communication business was far from preferential. With rules and standards more rigid than those for their sisters at the loom in the 1830s, the New England telephone operators began to organize. While feeling more “professional” – they chaffed at the tight quarters, the perfect posture, the behavioral restrictions, split-shifts  and  worst of all –  a lesser wage than men. Under the leadership of union organizer, Julia Sarsfield O’Connor – union membership was growing beyond Boston in other Massachusetts cities, including Lynn, Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, Framingham, Fitchburg, Salem and in the Merrimack Valley communities of  Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill.  The area was a hotbed of union activity – so it was not surprising that in frustration over failed negotiations in Boston and elsewhere – telephone switchboard operators walked off the job. While the strike was successful the operators soon fell victim to the self-dial telephone and automation.

On This Day...

      …in 1919, striking telephone operators in Massachusetts won the right to negotiate with the New England Telephone Company. The young, single women who had flooded into the industry in the early 1900s wanted higher wages and better working conditions. When they took off their headsets and walked off the job, they brought business in New England to a standstill. Government officials and industry executives were surprised by the women’s organization and determination. In less than a week, the phone company agreed to the strikers’ demands. The victorious operators returned to work, but within a few years, they would face a greater threat: the self-dial telephone. Manually-operated switchboards would soon be more common in museums than city telephone offices.
Read the the full article here at MassMoments.com.
Many women in my family were part of this force of women in the New England Telephone & Telegraph system as operators and some on the business-side. Two of  the great-aunts rose in the ranks – one to Chief Operator in Lowell and the other as a supervisor and trainer. These ladies – Miss Jane F. (Jennie) Kirwin (1886-1968) and Miss Vera E. Deignan (1903-1996) were considered businesswomen in their day – proper ladies with poise, polish and presence.

One Response to Women Telephone Operators on Strike – April 20, 1919

  1. John Quealey says:

    Marie of the many stories I heard about your Aunt Jennie the one that stands out is her walking around the room cardboard in hand as she came to an operator who would take the chewing gum from her mouth and place it on the cardboard and this classy lady would find another girl chewing away.