The role of the telegraph operator in the mid-nineteenth century was like that of today’s software programmer/analyst, according to independent scholar Tom Jepsen, who notes that in the “cyberspace” of long ago, male operators were often surprised to learn that the “first-class man” on the other end of the wire was a woman.
Like the computer, the telegraph caused a technological revolution. The telegraph soon worked synergistically with the era’s other mass-scale technology, the railroad, to share facilities as well as provide communications to help trains run on time.
The strategic nature of the telegraph in the Civil War opened opportunities for women, but tension arose as men began to return from military service. However, women telegraphers did not affect male employment or wage levels. Women kept their jobs after the war with support from industry—Western Union in particular—and because they defended and justified their role.
“Although women were predominantly employed in lower-paying positions and in rural offices, women who persisted and made a career of the profession could work up to managerial or senior technical positions that, except for wage discrimination, were identical to those of their male counterparts,” writes Jepsen. “Telegraphy as an occupation became gendered, in the sense that we understand today, only after the introduction of the teletype and the creation of a separate role for women teletype operators.”
My Sisters Telegraphic is a fresh introduction to this pivotal communications technology and its unsung women workers, long neglected by labor and social historians.
Thomas C. Jepsen, author of numerous articles on the history of telecommunications technology, is a telecommunications systems architect in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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