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Long Before Siri, Emma Nutt’s Voice Was on the Other End of the Line

She was the first female telephone operator. Before her, telephone operators were teenaged boys. That didn’t go so well

Emma Nutt was just the leading edge of the wave. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

You can make Siri speak in a male voice–and when asked, the iPhone assistant will tell you that it has no gender. But it’s most common to refer to Siri, Alexa and Cortana, all digital assistants with default female voices, as “she.”

You could trace that back to this day in 1878, when a woman named Emma Nutt showed up for her new job. Nutt was a Boston woman who worked in a telegraph office before joining the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company, one of the original telephone dispatches, writes the New England Historical Society. She was hired by Alexander Graham Bell himself, for a wage of $10 per month for a work week of 54 hours. And the assumptions about women that prompted Bell to hire her shape part of the subsequent history of women and technology up to the present.

Nutt wasn’t the first-ever professional telephone operator–she was hired to solve a problem. Teenage boys had been the previous telephone operators. Like Nutt, they were hired from telegraph companies, where their small size and speed (as well as relative cheapness) gave them an advantage.

“Connecting a call, back then, was physical labour,” writes Megan Garber for The Atlantic; “each one required some two to six people to plug switches into tall switch boards. This generally meant days spent standing and kneeling.”  

But unlike the telegraph office, teenagers proved totally unsuitable for speaking to real live people on the other end of the phone line. (It might have had something to do with the fact they were supposed to work 12-hour days, Garber writes.)

So, like teenagers everywhere, they started messing around–fighting, drinking beer, playing practical jokes, and swearing at both each other and customers. They were not a good fit with the burgeoning telecommunications industry. So Bell turned to another workforce that had already been exploited by the telegraph company. Women were small, they would work for less money, and Bell, like everyone else around him, held internalized beliefs about the innate gentleness and politeness of “the fairer sex.”

Nutt’s first day was successful, and the New England Historical Society writes that her sister Stella Nutt was hired later the same day. But the pair were just the beginning of a trend, writes Jennifer Latson for Time. Within six months, all Bell telephone operators were women–that is, young, white, Christian women who sounded like the phone company thought they should.

“Many women embraced the professional opportunity, which seemed like a step up from factory work or domestic service,” Latson writes. “But the work wasn’t easy, and telephone companies were draconian employers.” This state of affairs continued well into the twentieth century, she writes.   

As for Nutt, she worked at the telephone company for at least 33 years and loved her job, according to the New England Historical Society, retiring before the outbreak of World War I.

It’s hard to say exactly what precedents were set when she was hired–it’s certainly true that telephone operators were almost entirely women well into the 1970s. And it’s also true that speculative fiction like the Star Trek franchise—where Majel Barrett voiced the computer in every series—and assistive technologies like GPS skew female. Various justifications have been offered for this–for instance, the myth that female voices are easier to hear. Whatever the reason, something started with Emma Nutt.

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