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On Sept. 1, 1878, Emma Nutt showed up for work at the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company in Boston. It was her first day of work after leaving her old job at a telegraph company, and, whether she knew it or not, it was a milestone for women in the workplace: Nutt was the first-ever female telephone operator.
Although the industry hadn’t been around for that long—the first commercial telephone exchange began in January of that year—it had not employed women to dispatch calls. Teenaged boys had filled that role, but managers were beginning to question their fitness for the job. Many of the boys operated below the desired level of decorum, making prank phone calls and failing to have patience with customers.
Nutt was brought in as an antidote to her predecessors’ behavior, and she was quickly praised for her soothing voice and polite manner with customers. Her sister Stella, who began work on the same day, followed suit, and by 1920, more than 177,000 women were employed as telephone operators in the U.S. Over time, women replaced teenaged boys as the majority of that workforce.
Here, in honor of Nutt and the women who followed her, are LIFE’s best photos of women working switchboards through the decades.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.