Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

Trumpener, Katie


This dissertation uncovers a vast archive of fictional female telegraph, telephone, and typewriter girls, combining rigorous historical research with feminist, psychoanalytic readings of mass cultural texts to show how the global gendering of low-level communication work shaped modern media. It begins in the United States, where women first performed this work, and explores three further national contexts (France, Germany, and Britain) where female operators and typists circulated as media icons of techno-social connection in an increasingly atomized age. The title “modern mediatrix” describes the essential mediating role white-collar woman workers have played in modern media infrastructure, from switchboard to editing bench. This role has been promoted by corporations, nations, and mass media as feminine for over a century. Across four chapters that engage ad campaigns, plays, novels, and films, I reveal the modern mediatrix to be a uniquely flexible character, capable of creating continuity across industrial ruptures and activating new narrative forms. To trace this character’s construction, I tie her unique semiotic tools and social skills to evolving Christian notions of sanctified feminine transmission, weaving as women’s work, and Hollywood’s reliance on an invisible feminized clerical proletariat. Media scholars who point out telegraphs and typewriters still rarely note the girl behind the machine. For too long, my field has clung to the male factory worker as an all-purpose archetype for cinematic labor and depicted female tech users at home, alone, in the thrall of the apparatus. Instead, my project proposes the rise of the modern mediatrix as an essential theoretical and material foundation for film and media studies. Each of my chapters explores a different facet of the modern mediatrix. I begin in the 1860s, when Western Union began recruiting lady telegraphers and the Catholic Church premiered its Blessing of the Telegraph, with Mary cast as a pure channel for man’s natural use of electricity. Framed by this techno-romantic mother-figure, Chapter 1 examines three teenage girls enshrined in US popular history as the first users of the telegraph, telephone, and typewriter. I show how inventors and companies used virginal foremothers to claim paternity over communications technologies and their feminized workforces. Chapter 2 argues Bell’s speech-weaver ad campaigns coded onscreen operators as vernacular translators of transitional cinematic syntax. Highlighting telephone girls’ enlistment as temp techno-pedagogues during US film’s introduction of cross-cutting and European film’s polyglot transition to sound, it offers women’s film-weaving labor as an alternative to the surgical rhetoric (suture) and patriarchal authorship model typically used to historicize film editing conventions. Chapter 3 traces the secretary’s construction as an automatic audience member in interwar European modernist media. Suggesting that the hypnotic effects of taking dictation stoked Weimar-era anxieties about women workers’ receptivity to media-savvy fascist dictators, it catalogs secretarial symptoms that trouble Frankfurt school divisions of worker-spectators into shocked factory workers and absorbed little shopgirls. Chapter 4 uses the metallic echoes of taps to read Astaire-Rogers musicals as anxious allegories for the Production Code’s reliance on typists, and as encrypted channels to two fleetingly feminized languages, Morse and binary code. A postwar coda draws out the clerical conduit’s transgressive potential, hinted at by her narrative flexibility and explicitly reclaimed in the 1970s and 80s by feminist filmmakers and techno-scientists. With access to the codes of information capitalism, virginal electric muses and hysterical film fans became canny decipherers of mystified techno-cultural matrilineages.