An ubiquitous feature of books and films in the interwar period is the use of telephones, and therefore the presence of phone exchange operators. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, most phone calls in England were put through manual switchboards, which were owned by the Post Office and were mostly operated by young women. These operators would ask the caller which number they wanted to connect to, and then connect the wires on the switchboard to place the call. Switchboard operating became a ‘female’ job, because, in the words of the Science Museum: ‘The job of a switchboard operator took concentration, good interpersonal skills and quick hands. The Post Office, which ran the telephone service in the UK, soon realised that women and girls were much more skilled and reliable than the messenger boys who had first taken on the job.’
Switchboard operating fell into the same category as other jobs which were presumed to require nimble hands, such as hand-colouring films and working in confectionary and biscuit factories. The operators were usually young because it was still the convention that women gave up paid work upon their marriage. There are plenty of anecdotes about regular callers getting to know ‘their’ switchboard operator. The romantic and dramatic potential of the job was effectively used by Maurice Elvey in his 1932 film The Lodger (The Phantom Fiend) in which a young female operator overhears a murder down the line.
In 1929, switchboard operators found themselves at the heart of a debate in which modernity and progress clashed with perceived notions of the suitability of female labour. The Daily Telegraph ran an article on 6 July of that year headlined ‘Night Work for ‘Phone Girls’ – note both the novelty of shortening the word ‘telephone’ and the referral to working women as ‘girls’, as was common practice. The article reports that the Postmaster General proposed to extend the shifts of female operators from 8pm to 10.30pm or 11pm. This would necessitate the hiring of more operators as an individual’s working hours would not increase, but rather a shift pattern would be introduced.
According to the article, the current convention to end women operator’s days at 8pm was maintained at the recommendation of ‘Parliamentary committees’ which were opposed to the employment of girls late at night. The Postmaster General however was of the opinion ‘that social conditions as they affect the employment of women have so changed in recent years’ that this rule could now be abandoned. The increased mobility of women in the immediate post-War period, as well as better access to public transport, had made women much more mobile after dark, and it was becoming commonplace for women to travel around at night.
Curiously, there is also reference to a ‘medical argument’ against women working at night. Although this argument is not spelled out, on suspects there would be concerns that night-work negatively impacts women’s health and may in turn affect their ability to have children. This argument is countered by the Postmaster General through reference to the extensive work women undertook during the Great War, which did not compromise their health.
So far for the social arguments against women working late at night – but the proposal to extend their shifts in the telephone exchange also touched on a recurring debate about jobs for men versus jobs for women. While the women’s roles were ending at 8pm, the evening shift in the exchanges was undertaken by part-time male operators, whose work was apparently ‘subject to a disproportionate number of complaints’. This appears to be the key reason the Post Office was proposing a change; they wanted to improve the service to their customers.
The part-time nature of these men’s contracts is pivotal: the Post Office stresses that for these men, the ‘post office pay is not intended to form their principal means of livelihood.’ [emphasis mine] If the proposal was for women to replace full-time male breadwinners, there would have been considerable opposition to it, even if it would improve the evening telephone service. During the interwar period, the narrative of the male head of household working to provide for his family was much supported. It was regularly argued that women should not be ‘taking’ any roles that should go to male workers. The careful phrasing of the Postmaster General implies that the loss of labour would not be a hardship to any of these men; but it seems likely that for some of them, at least, the Post Office role was their primary income, and a redundancy would be keenly felt.
As this article demonstrates, an apparently simple desire to improve the telephone service for customers was enmeshed in wider debates and concerns that echoed throughout the interwar period. The attentive and powerful press industry could help or hinder an organisation’s ambitions by being either supportive or obstructive. During this period, heads of organisations such as the Post Office had to be acutely sensitive to the political environment even for innovations which may have appeared as strictly internal affairs.
You can see switchboard operators at work here at the International switchboard in London
 Miriam Glucksmann, Women Assemble: Women Workers and the New Industries in Inter-War Britain (London: Routledge, 1990)
 Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)