My Dad’s maternal aunt is an intriguing figure in my family tree. She was a French immigrant coming to America in the early 1900s. She never married and never had children. She may have played a small role aiding the US in World War I.
The Woman Known as Tante Marie
Marie Alexine Lassalle was known to most as Tante Marie. Tante being the French word for aunt. She, was born in Ogeu les bains, France, on the 19th of Aug 1891 to Pierre Lassalle and Elizabeth Segalas. She came to America in 1908, just a year after my Grandfather.
As a single woman on her own in America, she went to work almost immediately. There was a large French community in San Francisco which I’m sure Marie stayed connected to. It stands to reason, then, that her first job in America was as a worker in a French laundry. Our relatives owned several of them.
By 1910, she was out of the laundry business. She was 17 and employed as a live in maid for Henry Lyons, a clothing store merchant whose family lived on Franklin Street in San Francisco. They also employed an Irish cook and a Japanese butler.
Aiding the American War Effort
You may not know that women worked for the U.S. military during World War I. Most of these were civilian positions. The U.S. Army Signal Corp. was one area where women could serve.
General Pershing needed French translators. A special call went out for women who could speak French and English. Marie signed up. She was 27 at the time.
The Photograph is Evidence of Her Service
According to my dad and his siblings, while in service of the Signal Corp., Marie was sent to France to work as a French translator. These translators were called “Hello Girls”.
According to the National Archives website, 1,750 women applied. 450 went through training, but only 233 were sent to France. These translators spent their days manning switchboards. Their skills put to good use!
The photo of Marie was taken in 1918 and shows her in her Signal Corp. uniform. They were required to wear them, but they had to buy the uniform themselves! It is the only evidence I have that she served.
I found several group photos of the Hello Girls. This photo shows 29 women who were employed by the Signal Corp. There is also this photo, this photo, this photo, and this wonderful photo taken in front of a statue. Was Tante Marie one of the women in these group photos? Was she one of the women who was sent to France? I hope some day to find out.
After The War She Remained on Her Own
After the war, she came back to San Francisco. For the first few years she rented an apartment on Jackson Street. But, by 1940, she had moved to an apartment on Filbert. She was always listed as living alone
My dad inferred that she worked at a beauty salon. He saved several old beauty salon catalogues showing the latest hairstyles and the weird contraptions used to achieve them. I’ve found no recorded evidence of this employment, though.
In 1920, she was dress maker for a store. In 1930, she was a seamstress for a clothing store. In 1940, she was doing alterations for a department store. Despite what my dad said, it seems this is the field she worked in once she was established in America. Perhaps she had picked up the trade when she worked as a maid for the clothing store merchant.
Marie Eventually Became a U.S. Citizen
Though Marie served the United States in World War I some 10 years after she arrived in the country, she delayed becoming a citizen. She didn’t petition to become a citizen until 25 February 1926.
She became a U.S. citizen on 1 Feb 1932.
Marie passed away at the age of 76 on 2 Dec 1967.
A Little History of the Hello Girls
You can learn a little bit about women in the Signal Corp. in the article History of a Hello Girl by Michelle Christides.
The book “Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers” tells the story of these amazing women.
There is an interesting bit of history pertaining to the Hello Girls and one repeated far too many times in the United States. Although they were seen as part of the military, were required to wear uniforms, follow military regulations, and could achieve the rank of lieutenant, the Hello Girls were not granted military benefits after their service.
It seems that once the war was over they learned that army regulations determined veteran status as gender specific.
They began to fight for the right to be called veterans and received the benefits due them in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1977 that congress passed legislation and President Carter signed it into law in 1978.
With this recognition, the Hello Girls earned the honor of being the Army’s first official female veterans.
That honor goes to you, Tante Marie!
You can read more about their service and the battle for veterans benefits on the National Archives Pieces of History site.
This started as a simple edit of an old post for Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Week 14 prompt Maiden Aunts and turned into a two week research project. I had no idea about the Hello Girls and I’m somewhat amazed to find that my great aunt may have played a small role, not only in aiding the US military, but being one of the first official female army veterans.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com