Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Oveta Culp Hobby (1953–1955): Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare

Oveta Culp Hobby was the first secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and served in that capacity under President Eisenhower from April 11, 1953, until August 1, 1955. Hobby studied at Mary Hardin-Baylor College and the University of Texas Law School until 1927.

As a law student, Culp was appointed parliamentarian of the Texas House of Representatives (1925-1931 and 1939-1941). She worked for the conference authority when the Democratic National Conference was held in Houston (1928), and she later signed on to the Senate campaign of Thomas Connally. Her work on the Houston mayoral campaign of 1929 resulted in an appointment as assistant to the Houston city attorney.

In 1930, she mounted a failed bid for a seat in the state legislature. After marrying William Pettus Hobby, a former governor and owner of a number of newspapers, Oveta Culp Hobby began a career in journalism as research editor (1931-1933), book editor (1933-1936), assistant editor (1936-1938), and executive vice president (after 1938). She was made head of the women's division of the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations (1941-1942) and director of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (1942-1945), becoming the first female American colonel.

As director, Hobby worked with Eisenhower, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and then returned to Houston after the conclusion of the war. In 1952, she spearheaded the Democrats for Eisenhower campaign and was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Federal Security Agency, then in charge of health and education programs.

Eisenhower elevated the agency to a cabinet-level department, but it was Hobby who transformed it into one, becoming only the second woman cabinet member in the process. Though she shared many conservative views with Eisenhower, some of her proposals to expand health care were opposed by the Bureau of the Budget due to the high levels of government spending required. Nevertheless, Hobby also advocated voluntary, nonprofit insurance plans as another means of extending healthcare to the poor.

She retired because of her husband's ill health, tending to his needs and then returning as editor of the Houston Post. After his death in 1964, she worked for a number of causes until her own death in 1995.