NEWS: Information & Culture special issue on the history of women in British telecommunications

by Elizabeth Bruton

A female switchboard operator at work on a small office switchboard, somewhere in Britain, 1940. Courtesy of Imperial War Museum, source here.

I’m delighted to announce the publication of a special issue of Information & Culture: A journal of history on the history of women in British telecommunications, guest edited by myself (Elizabeth Bruton) and Mar Hicks.  The full issue can be found on Project Muse.  Feel to get in touch here if you do not have institutional access and would like pdf versions of the articles.

The special issue was an outcome of a panel on gender at the British Post Office in the Telecommunications Era conference at the Science Museum, London in August 2017.

Women’s roles in telecommunications history remain underexplored despite a recent proliferation of work on women in the history of technology.  This special issue seeks to correct that imbalance by situating women’s work in early telecommunications in the UK in relation to broader changes in British society.

The full details of the five articles and their authors are below.

A History of Women in British Telecommunications: Introducing a Special Issue by Elizabeth Bruton, Mar Hicks

Abstract: Women’s roles in telecommunications history remain underexplored despite a recent proliferation of work on women in the history of technology. This special issue seeks to correct that imbalance by situating women’s work in early telecommunications in the UK in relation to broader changes in British society.

Elizabeth Bruton is curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum in London. Her research interests include the history of communications, gender and women in electrical engineering, museum collections, and scientific instruments.

Mar Hicks is associate professor of history of technology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Their work focuses on the history of computing, gender, labor, and sexuality. Hicks’s first book, Programmed Inequality (MIT Press, 2017), shows how sexism negatively affected British computing.

Embodying Telegraphy in Late Victorian London by Katie Hindmarch-Watson

Abstract: Upon the nationalization of the British telegraph system in 1870, a set of processes at work inside London’s Central Telegraph Office that was dictated by the bodily and spatial ordering of the era and combined with competing modes of Victorian class-inflected respectability produced gender-specified information labor. One of the effects of this process on telegraphy in London’s Central Office in the first decade of nationalized telegraphy was the creation of high-status circuits catering to the state, international trade, sporting life, and imperial business and low-status circuits directed toward the local and the provincial. These distinct telegraphic orbits were connected to different types of telegraph instruments operated by differently gendered telegraphists. The human components of the telegraph system embodied the stratifications of the ascendant telecommunications era.

Katie Hindmarch-Watson is assistant professor of modern British history at Johns Hopkins University. Her forthcoming book, Dispatches from the Underground: Telecommunications Workers and the Making of an Information Capital, 1870–1916 (University of California Press), explores both the work experiences and symbolic import of London’s telegraphists, telegraph boys, and telephone operators in the first decades of nationalized British telecommunications.

“Maiden, Whom We Never See”: Cultural Representations of the “Lady Telephonist” in Britain ca. 1880–1930 and Institutional Responses by Helen Glew

Abstract: This article examines attitudes toward the female telephone operator in the British press and a range of literary and cultural sources. Perceptions of female telephonists were rooted in both reactions to the increasingly visible employment of women in white-collar work and uncertain responses to the telephone as a new communication medium. Such perceptions of the female telephonist became stereotyped and static, though there were some later challenges and attempts to nuance these perceptions as well. The General Post Office took over the service and implemented a number of changes, but ultimately the organization and telephonists themselves had to coexist with these stereotypes.

Helen Glew is senior lecturer in history at the University of Westminster. Her research focuses on women’s employment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain, and she is the author of Gender, Rhetoric and Regulation: Women’s Work in the Civil Service and the London County Council, 1900–55 (Manchester University Press, 2016).

“Uncertain at Present for Women, but May Increase”: Opportunities for Women in Wireless Telegraphy during the First World War by Elizabeth Bruton

Abstract: The British General Post Office (GPO) was one of the leading employers of women in Britain between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, first as telegraph operators and later in telephone exchanges. However, there were ongoing private discussions within the GPO as to the physical capabilities of women, as well as suitable working facilities and traditionally gendered spaces and occupations. These discussions shaped wireless telegraphy as a highly gendered and exclusively masculine profession until the exigencies of the First World War led to limited opportunities for women as domestic wireless operators for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) from 1917 onward.

Elizabeth Bruton is curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum in London. Her research interests include the history of communications, gender and women in electrical engineering, museum collections, and scientific instruments.

The Key Role Played by WAAC British Post Office Female Staff in Army Signal Units on the Western Front, 1917–1920 by Barbara Walsh

Abstract: There is a gaping void in the historiography of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), later called the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps QMAAC), brought about by the absence of an informed understanding of the crucial role played by the young women seconded from British post office exchanges to serve as telephonists and telegraphists in France in 1917. Specifically attached to Royal Engineers’ signal units in British Expeditionary Force army bases and all three echelons of its General Headquarters, their arrival ensured the continued smooth operation of the army’s vital lines of communication. This article examines how their key role as professional technologists within a tightly secured military sector made a significant contribution to the final successful outcome of the conflict. Questions can be raised why their skills were never later addressed within the historiography, and it may be concluded that adequate recognition is long overdue.

Barbara Walsh holds a PhD in history from Lancaster University UK and is an independent scholar who has produced several groundbreaking works on a variety of topics that have opened new fields of research for overseas scholars. She is published by the Irish Academic Press, the History Press, and Pen and Sword and in translation by Les Éditions des l’Officine.

The full issue can be found on Project Muse.

RT @OnThisDayShe: In July 1980 US physicist Mildred Dresselhaus published her paper, "Intercalation compounds of graphite". The first… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

@bachwards @IETLibArch Thank you! That's very nice to hear 😊