Monday, January 9, 2023
Sunny. High 44 degrees.
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The Vanishing Telephone Operator
By Ann Cooper
My grandfather died in 1937, leaving my grandmother, just a little over 40, to a precarious financial future. She lived in a small town in Arizona, and the phone company came to the rescue, installing equipment in her tiny home to enable her to be the town’s telephone operator. Her younger daughter went to work for AT&T, too, rising to chief operator in a larger Arizona town. Her daughter, my cousin, also was a lifelong AT&T operator, as was my stepmother.
From a consumer standpoint, there was much to hate about the AT&T monopoly. And I have no idea how well, or poorly, AT&T paid my relatives and the many thousands of other women who worked for it over the years as operators. Few are left and fewer still will survive with AT&T’s latest cut: starting this month, the company’s digital landline customers can no longer reach an operator or directory assistance by dialing 411 or 0. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there were fewer than 4,000 operators in 2021, down from a peak of 420,000 in the 1970s.
What I do know is that, in much of the 20th century when women’s work options were exceptionally limited, the phone company offered them secure employment and a decent pension at retirement. I’m guessing that I’m far from the only Rag reader who remembers Ma Bell and what it meant to your friends or family members who worked there – as operators, or in the famous Bell laboratories in New Jersey, or elsewhere in the system. If you have a story to share, please do so at email@example.com. We’d love to hear them.
And even if you don’t have a story but are nostalgic or curious about the history of telephone operators, CNN’s backgrounder here tells the story.