Chevy Chase storyteller Ellouise Schoettler will present her second one-woman show, “The Hello Girls: A Surprising WWI Story,” at the Athenaeum Theatre in Alexandria at 7 p.m. on Nov. 4.
“The Hello Girls” tells the story of a group of female telephone operators drafted by Gen. John J. Pershing during World War I.
In 1917, Pershing posted an advertisement in U.S. newspapers for female telephone operators after the difficult communication between the French female telephone operators and American soldiers on the newly installed American Expeditionary Forces telephone system.
After her first one-woman show “My Forever Home,” Schoettler wanted to do another personal story. She learned about a great uncle who fought in World War I through other older family members and thought it would make a great performance.
Originally, she wanted to do it on her great Uncle Walter Cobb who was a sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War I but she could not find enough information on him from her family members because most had been born after he died.
In an effort to find more information on the time period, she paid a visit to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial library in Arlington.
“The curator at the Women in Military Service library actually told me about the ‘The Hello Girls’ when I asked them about information on the period. They pulled different books for me to read,” she said.
The more she found out about the women, the more she was interested in doing a performance to tell their story.
“Even though these women knew it was an ‘experiment’ taking female telephone operators to the battlefield, but they were determined to succeed and prove they could do the job,” she said.
Through her research, Schoettler was able to get to know some personal stories of the 233 women who answered the general’s ad for bilingual telephone workers.
“It was interesting to learn that women dominated the role of telephone operators — it was another occupation choice for women besides the factory, domestic service, or work on the farm,” Schoettler said.
Unlike her first performance “My Forever Home,” the “The Hello Girls” differed because it was not a personal story. She had to write herself out of the performance and capture and tell someone else’s experience to the audience.
“It has been an exciting process for me. I usually work on personal stories. This is a history program where I am working with other peoples’ lives to tell the story. It is a challenge that is taking me in a new direction with my work as I would like to do more drawn from history where I can bring strangers to life.” she said.
During her performance, she embodies three female telephone operators — Grace Banker, Olive Shaw and Merle Egan Anderson who was the chief operating officer in Paris during the Peace Treaty Negotiations after the end of the War.
“These women were very courageous and patriotic. They spent 12 days on a ship to France and with no idea of what they would face once there,” she said.
In addition, Grace Banker was just 26 years old and a college graduate when she joined the “The Hello Girls” and trained 33 women in operating the switchboard.
Schoettler views these women as the “precursors of modern military women”.
“These women were really instrumental in conducting the war. When there was a battle going on or the set up for a battle, the number of calls would expand and they worked longer shifts,” she said.
Despite their courage and patriotism, these women still faced the same prejudicial barriers as their counterparts back home once WWI ended. The U.S. Armed forces did not give the women an honorable discharge or their medals because only males could receive these awards.
However, the “The Hello Girls” would not be defeated. For more than 60 years, they fought to have the same awards and honor as their male counterparts who were involved in the war.
In 1979, the U.S. Armed Forces gave the women their honorable discharge and the medals they deserved. At the time, only 18 of the 233 “The Hello Girls” were still living.
Merle Egan Anderson was a key participate in their lobbying effort.
“I can’t imagine fighting for something for more than 60 years. It reminded me of some individuals I worked with on ERA Campaign that held onto their principals and fought for them until the end,” Schoettler said.
She also said that the sense of pride in themselves and their country made the “The Hello Girls” stand apart.
Even though many young adults and teens have grown up in the “Technological Age”, she hopes that they will attend the performance and gain a knowledge of the pride of these women and how their contributions during World War I helped to foster the Suffrage Movement and in years later the Women’s Movement.
In honor of the “The Hello Girls” contributions, Schoettler reads the names of 12 of the 18 women who received medals.
Schoettler, a native of North Carolina, has lived in the D.C. area since 1964. She has bachelor’s degree from Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross in Washington and a MFA from American University. She performs across the country and has two cable shows (“Stories in Time” and “Stories in Focus”) on Channel 16 in Montgomery County.