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Telephone companies began hiring operators, they chose teenage boys for the job. But the companies soon regretted their decision. Boys had done a great job working in telegraph offices. And they worked for low wages. But being a telephone operator was a tough job that required lots of patience -- something the boys didn't have. The boy operators quickly turned telephone offices upside down. They wrestled instead of worked. They pulled pranks on callers, and even cursed at them.

In 1878, the Boston Telephone Dispatch company began hiring women operators instead. Women, the companies thought, would behave better than boys. Women had pleasant voices that customers -- most of whom were men -- would like. And because society did not treat women equally, they could be paid less and supervised more strictly than men.

The first woman telephone operator was Emma Nutt. In her day, women who wanted to work outside the family home or business had few choices. A young woman could get a job as a servant. Or she could work as a factory laborer, sales clerk, nurse, or teacher. Many women jumped at the chance to become telephone operators. By 1900, almost all operators were women. But not all women could be operators.

To be an operator, a woman had to be unmarried, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six. She had to look prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach the top of the tall telephone switchboard. Much like many other American businesses at the turn of the century, telephone companies unfairly discriminated against people from certain ethnic groups and races.
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Because women were generally discriminated against, operators' wages were low. And operators seldom got the respect they deserved. The typical operator earned about $7 per week a small salary even in 1900. She worked ten or eleven hours a day, six days a week. If necessary, she also worked nights and holidays. An operator who got married was forced to leave her job. To many early telephone users -- most of whom were wealthy -- the telephone operator was just another household servant.

Still, the operator was the heart of the telephone system. She watched over a switchboard containing up to 200 phone lines, listening in with her clunky metal headset. Her main job was to plug callers' phone lines into the phone lines of the people they wanted to speak to. But she often acted as the town's information source, too. Operators were also expected to inform customers of election results, streetcar breakdowns, storms, train arrivals, and much more.

In 1900, the life of the rural operator was very different from her peers in the city. The telephone was a big hit with the farm families who could afford one. But there were rarely enough calls to tie a rural operator to her switchboard. To help pass the time, some women attached long cords to their headsets. That way, they could walk around their homes doing chores while they waited for the phone to ring. Rural operators enjoyed a lot of independence.

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City operators, on the other hand, handled up to 600 calls an hour. To increase efficiency, telephone companies hired scientific management teams. These teams created rules for everything the operator did, from how she should sit to how long she should take to answer a call -- which was four seconds. They were forbidden to have conversations with customers. Supervisors watched over operators constantly, even secretly listening in on their conversations.

Like school children, city operators had to ask permission to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water. Supervisors punished them for even the smallest break in the rules. For arriving a minute late to work, an operator was sometimes sent to sit in a punishment room a humiliating experience for a grown woman.

The life of the early telephone operators who followed Emma Nutt was not an easy one. But these women were true American pioneers. They proved that women could handle a tough job with skill and confidence. They opened doors for women who wanted to work outside the home. And they helped make the telephone business a giant success.