Lou Henry Hoover's life was marked by her devotion to her husband and family, a deeply felt commitment to civic activism, and a love of the outdoors. She was a quiet, well-educated woman who had little taste for publicity or national attention. Nevertheless, in modest ways, she did expand the role of the First Lady.
Born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1874, Lou Henry moved with her family to California in 1884. As a young girl, she developed a love of camping and hiking. She enrolled in San Jose Normal School (now California State University) and received a teaching certificate in 1893; one year later, she entered Stanford to study geology. At Stanford, she met Herbert Hoover. As one of the first woman to earn a degree in geology from an American university – she graduated in 1898 – Lou Henry was unable to find work. Instead, encouraged by her mother, she volunteered to assist the Spanish-American War relief effort at her local community Red Cross.
Lou and Herbert kept up their courtship while Hoover began a career as a mining engineer. After he received an assignment in China overseeing the mining operations of a large firm, Hoover proposed to Lou, who happily accepted. They married in 1899 and immediately set sail for China. One year after their arrival, they found themselves in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-Western uprising that was eventually suppressed through foreign military intervention. Lou helped care for the wounded and injured as she and Herbert were barricaded in a western settlement in the city of Tientstin. For the next several years, Lou traveled the world with Hoover as he rose to the top of his profession. Intelligent, adventurous, and easily able to learn new languages, she was an ideal partner for her husband.
Herbert and Lou Hoover were living in London when World War I began in 1914. Lou joined her husband in organizing war relief efforts, establishing both the American Women's War Relief Fund and the American Women's Hospital. When the United States became a belligerent in 1917, Herbert Hoover took charge of the U.S. Food Administration in Washington, D.C., while Lou pursued new forms of civic activism. She appealed to the American public to ration and conserve food in support of the war effort. She also helped found the Food Administration Women's Club, which aided young, single women who had moved to the capital hoping to find work in the new war agencies. When the war ended, Lou Hoover began a program to assist veterans, especially wounded veterans, as they returned home.
During the 1920s, Lou Hoover became prominent in organizations with no connection to her husband, who was serving as secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1928. One of these groups was the Girl Scouts. Lou Hoover had been named a Girl Scout commissioner in 1917; in 1921 she became the organization’s national vice-president. From 1922 to 1925, she served as its president, and remained active in the Girl Scouts for the rest of her life. Another such organization was the National Amateur Athletic Federation, which at Lou’s urging created a Women’s Division; she chaired that division from 1923 to 1927 and then served as honorary chair until 1941. Through these organizations, Lou sought to encourage girls and young women to pursue physical and outdoor activities as a part of their lives.
As a cabinet wife, Lou Hoover also promoted volunteer organizations which featured women in leadership positions. Following revelations of the Teapot Dome scandal in 1924, she founded the National Women's Conference on Law Enforcement and encouraged women to pursue public service. In addition, she sought to reduce the time cabinet wives and wives of other government officials spent at afternoon teas and other social events so that they might have the opportunity, if they so chose, to pursue more serious concerns.
Lou Henry Hoover both upheld and defied contemporary expectations regarding the role of the First Lady. A gracious entertainer, she oversaw White House social events and was deeply involved in building the Camp Rapidan retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She took a deep interest in the White House and commissioned a systematic cataloging of all the White House furnishings and works of art. Like some of her predecessors, Lou offered advice to the President on issues of the day; she privately encouraged her husband to appoint more women to government positions and supported his signing of an executive order mandating that the civil service conduct its hiring without regard to the applicant's sex.
In a few instances, Lou Hoover broke from established traditions, earning her much public attention. She ended the White House greeting line on New Year’s Day. She also ended the practice of not inviting pregnant women to White House social occasions. Much more controversial was her decision in 1929 to invite Jesse DePriest, a black woman married to black congressman Oscar DePriest, to a White House tea for congressional wives. The invitation and subsequent visit -- which Mrs. DePriest enjoyed immensely -- engendered bitter criticism in the South.
Lou Hoover was also the first wife of a President to speak over the radio. In all, she delivered fifteen addresses that were broadcast to local or national audiences. As First Lady, she also made numerous public speaking appearances. These speeches marked a more active role for the First Lady, but Mrs. Hoover steadfastly refused to cultivate a popular image. She granted only one personal interview (which came late in the 1932 campaign) and permitted the White House to release only non-descript head-shot photos of herself. In these ways, she shared her husband’s unwillingness to show the public her kind and compassionate tendencies. To many reporters who covered the White House, Lou Hoover seemed aloof and distant.
With the onset of the Depression, Lou Hoover tried to encourage Americans to embrace the spirit of voluntarism as she had during World War I. Like her husband, she continued to preach the virtues of charitable giving and used the radio to encourage sharing and donations. The Hoovers led by example, spending their own funds to feed the White House staff, paying for some government positions, and financing many or all of the costs of official White House events. Lou Hoover also responded to hundreds of appeals for charity, spending her money to aid men and women in need. The Hoovers, however, refused to use their charitable acts as a way to improve their declining public image. Partly as a result, the public focused on the lavish nature of White House entertainment. For the many Americans who were struggling to live day-to-day, it was easy to see such social affairs as a profligate extravagance.
After leaving the White House in 1933, Lou Hoover continued her volunteer and charitable work. She served on the Girl Scout’s board of directors and as that organization’s president. She remained politically active, working with both the League of Women Voters and the Republican Party. And, as she had throughout her life, she continued to enjoy outdoor activities like horseback riding. Lou Henry Hoover died of a heart ailment on January 7, 1944, in New York City.
Because Lou Henry Hoover was the wife of the President who failed to solve the Great Depression -- and because she preceded Eleanor Roosevelt, the woman who remade the position of First Lady -- her contemporaries, as well as historians, have tended to disparage or overlook her achievements. But Lou Hoover was, in her own way, a remarkable First Lady. She challenged existing social mores by lobbying for more women in government positions and by rebuffing southern racial customs. Her public speeches and radio broadcasts prefigured, in many ways, the activities of future First Ladies. Finally, her behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of charities exemplified the Hoover administration’s anti-depression efforts and demonstrated her compassion. A balanced account of Lou Henry Hoover’s life, then, must credit her with these achievements if it is to tar her with the failures of her husband’s administration.