Race on the Line

Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880–1980

Race on the Line

Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 37 b&w photographs Published: May 2001

Author: Venus Green

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Gender and Sexuality, History > U.S. History

Race on the Line is the first book to address the convergence of race, gender, and technology in the telephone industry. Venus Green—a former Bell System employee and current labor historian—presents a hundred year history of telephone operators and their work processes, from the invention of the telephone in 1876 to the period immediately before the break-up of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1984. Green shows how, as technology changed from a manual process to a computerized one, sexual and racial stereotypes enabled management to manipulate both the workers and the workplace.
More than a simple story of the impact of technology, Race on the Line combines oral history, personal experience, and archival research to weave a complicated history of how skill is constructed and how its meanings change within a rapidly expanding industry. Green discusses how women faced an environment where male union leaders displayed economic as well as gender biases and where racism served as a persistent system of division. Separated into chronological sections, the study moves from the early years when the Bell company gave both male and female workers opportunities to advance; to the era of the “white lady” image of the company, when African American women were excluded from the industry and feminist working-class consciousness among white women was consequently inhibited; to the computer era, a time when black women had waged a successful struggle to integrate the telephone operating system but faced technological displacement and unrewarding work.
An important study of working-class American women during the twentieth century, this book will appeal to a wide audience, particularly students and scholars with interest in women’s history, labor history, African American history, the history of technology, and business history.


“[B]oth an important contribution and a reminder of the complex interaction of technology, gender, and race.” — T. F. Armstrong , Choice

“This fine study makes a distinctive contribution. . . . The study skillfully interweaves evidence on managerial views and training systems with the career experiences of individual women. . . . [A] nuanced discussion.” — Michael French , H-Net Reviews

"Race on the Line is one of the best historical studies so far on the anatomy of racism. . . . [N]othing mars the achievements of this monumental and original study." — Patricia Cooper , Technology and Culture

"Race on the Line's most important contribution is its systematic, detailed account of the central role of technological change in the work lives of the women and, recently, people of color employed by the Bell system and its successors. . . . [A]n important contribution to the ongoing revision of women's labor history." — Roland L. Guyotte , Annals of Iowa

"[A] terrific study. . . . [I]t is likely the one book that best exemplifies the state-of-the-art in labor history today. . . . Race on the Line is the most fully realized study of white labor, race, and gender yet written. . . ." — David Roediger , Labor History

"[A]n important contribution to labor history." — Elizabeth Faue , Reviews in American History

"[An] exhaustive, authoritative history of the relationship between technology, labor, class, race, and gender in the world's most influential communications company. The book is also the definitive study of labor and management relations in the telephone industry. . . . [T]horough and well-informed. . . ." — Angel Kwolek-Folland, American Studies

"[An] important new study. . . . Race on the Line represents a model of research in corporate archives." — Alex Lichtenstein, Business History Review

"[C]ompelling. . . . Race on the Line should stimulate energetic discussion and debate." — Paul Michel Taillon , The History Teacher

"[Green] provides an unflinching examination of unions’ complicity in technological corporate control. . . . Green’s book is filled with information found nowhere else. . . . [A]n excellent job . . . ." — Ileen A. DeVault , Journal of American History

"Green's study makes an important contribution to labor history. It illuminates important shifts in the ways telephone companies controlled labor and adds to our understanding of the history of business, labor, technology, and the economy." — Elizabeth Faue, Reviews in American History

Race on the Line is an extraordinary achievement. It sets a new standard for understandingf the impact of race, gender, and technological change on the labor process in American society.” — Joe W. Trotter, author of The African American Experience

“A compelling, well-argued, and richly-documented study of the interplay between technology and the racial and sexual division of labor in one of the most important industries in the global economy. Green provides a powerful commentary as well on the contemporary uses of racism and affirmative action as vehicles for minimizing resistance to job displacements created by automation and computerization. A superb book!” — Nancy Hewitt, Rutgers University

“Green has produced a study that enables us to understand concretely what differences race, class, and gender make in people’s work lives. Her special understanding of the technology and of the constraints and possibilities of work at the telephone company gives her arguments extra force. Finally, she does a magnificent job of showing the complexity of the considerations that motivates all parties involved, giving full attention to both multiple and shifting motivations.” — Susan Porter Benson, University of Connecticut


Availability: In stock
Price: $29.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Venus Green is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the City College of New York. From 1974–1990, she was employed by New York Telephone Company as a switching equipment technician.

Table of Contents Back to Top



Part I: The Beginnings of Telephony

1. “Hello Central”: The Beginning of a New Industry

2. “Hello Girls”: The Making of the Voice with a Smile

3. The “Ladies” Rebel: Unions and Resistance

Part 2: The Dial Era, 1920–1960

4. “Goodbye Central”: Automating Telephone Service

5. The Bell System Family: The Formation of Employee Associations

6. The Dial Era

Part 3: The Computer Era

7. Racial Integration and the Demise of the “White Lady” Image

8. Black Operators in the Computer Age




Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, International Labor History Association Book of the Year Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2573-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2554-3
Publicity material