When the first telephone lines were installed in the late 1800s,
the systems were run by men and boys. At the time, it was unusual
for a woman to hold a job outside of the home. Almost all physical
labour that had to be done outside of the home was ‘men’s work’,
including that which came with the installation and running of
telephone lines. It was only natural that the first
telephone-related positions were filled by male workers. Young men,
aged 16 or 17, were the first operators.
However, it soon became apparent that when it came to operating
the switchboards, boys were not suitable for the job. Too often,
they proved to be noisy, rude, or impatient. They were known for
playing tricks with the telephone equipment, both on each other and
Over time, the role of the male as operator was slowly
eliminated. Some were promoted to higher-paying jobs within the
company, while others were fired for bad conduct. Operating a
telephone became known strictly as a female’s domain, and "telephone
girl" became a household word. The introduction of women operators
to the telephone force proved to be a blessing for phone companies.
Women were seen as much more suited to the job. Overall, they
were more gentle and patient than the boys had been, more polite to
customers and much less likely to talk back when provoked by
There were, of course, criteria that a woman had to fill in order
to be considered for the job. She had to be tall enough to reach all
the lines on the switchboards and slim enough to squeeze between
them. The job demanded that she be courteous, alert, adaptable, and
even-tempered, with skilled hands and a quick ear.
The women worked hard. Operating was not an easy job, requiring
both an even temperament and knowledge of how the circuits and
switchboard systems worked. Often, when the equipment malfunctioned,
operators were the only ones on hand to correct the problem. Many of
them knew the inner workings of the switchboard as well as any male
installer or switchman.
As the number of phone lines in communities increased, the job
grew in difficulty. Customers expected fast, efficient service.
Often, customers’ frustrations over personal matters or poor
telephone signals were relieved at the expense of the operator, who
listened with patience.
In Edmonton, the role of the first operator fell to Jenny Lauder,
who began part-time work for Alex Taylor in 1891. A year later, at
age 14, Jenny quit school in order to work the switchboard full
time. She became the head operator and continued her work as
operator until 1907.
The role of women in the development of the telephone system
cannot be understated. Their employment in the telephone business
forever changed the nature of women’s economic experience.
Often, female operators acted as the mediators between telephone
users and company owners. They were the voice linking customers and
companies. They alerted company management about any issues or
customer complaints, all the while maintaining an even disposition
when forced to speak to upset customers on behalf of the companies.
Women in general, as the most frequent users of the telephone,
played a significant role in the expansion of telephone systems.
They drew attention to the telephone’s use as a tool for social and
personal communication, indirectly leading not only to the growth of
the telephone systems but also to new cultural practices that were
Copyright © 2004
Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved