American telephone companies of the early twentieth century strictly trained their female operators to become domestic machines serving the economic interests of male business owners. Yet telephone dramas, films and magazine fiction celebrated the operator as a subversive maverick who flouts rules and transgresses social boundaries. These disaster tales, detective stories and romantic comedies suggest that, far from being pawns of social control, operators themselves regulate society and engineer their customers' fates, as well as their own. Motivated by curiosity and empathy, the heroines of these tales prefer human connections to purely mechanical ones, and they use the power of the switchboard to manifest their own vision of the social good. The stories attest to a deep cultural respect and desire for empowered women protagonists and for the triumph of human initiative and decision-making over the efficiency of mechanized work.


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pp. 38-63
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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