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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Employment of Women

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 on subscribers.

circular card files 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 customers.

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.

Jenny Lauder 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 previously unseen.

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