Throwback Thursday: A Boston Woman Becomes the First Female Telephone Operator

Emma Nutt first reported for work on September 1, 1878.

emma nutt

Emma and Stella Nutt with two boy operators / Photo via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Alexander Graham Bell is probably most famous for a little invention known as the telephone. In fact, he made the first-ever two-way long distance telephone call between Boston and Cambridge. But Bell should be remembered for one other thing—having the smarts to hire a lady.

On September 1, 1878, Emma Nutt became the first woman to be employed as a telephone operator. She reported for work at Boston’s Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company after Bell made the bold decision to hire her.

Prior to her employment, operators were typically teenage boys. The job was supposed to be a natural transition for the boys since they were excellent telegraph operators. It turns out, speaking with real humans proved to be a challenge for them. The boys were known to horse around on the job, swearing at and pranking callers as well as each other. So when Emma’s patient, soothing voice was heard over the line, Bell realized he could capitalize on a woman’s seemingly inherent politeness. A few hours after Emma was hired, her sister, Stella, became the second female telephone operator in the country.

Just ten years later, female telephone operators were the norm—and cursing at customers became a thing of the past. According to the New England Historical Society, the job required women to be unmarried and between the ages of 17 and 26. They had to be tall enough (and have long enough arms) to reach the top of the switchboard, and had to be mentally strong enough to repeat “Number, please” hundreds of times per day, all while receiving meager pay.

This was good enough for Emma, who remained an operator for more than 30 years. In 2000, an automated speech attendant system called “EMMA” was named in her honor.