This Day in History: Lou Hoover, a forgotten First Lady
On this day in 1874, a future First Lady is born. This gifted woman has been overshadowed a bit by her successor, Eleanor Roosevelt. What a pity. You have to wonder if there was anything the talented Lou Hoover couldn’t do!
Lou would become the first woman to earn a degree in geology from Stanford University. She once helped translate a classic work on mining from Latin into English, earning a prestigious award for her effort. She could speak five languages, including Mandarin Chinese. She was a philanthropist, an activist, a public speaker, and a leader in war relief efforts. She was the first First Lady to give a radio address. She created programs to combat the Great Depression.
In fact, if any First Lady but Eleanor Roosevelt had followed her, we would surely all know much more about Lou Hoover.
Lou met her husband in a geology class at Stanford. “Bert,” as she would call him, was immediately captivated “by her whimsical mind, her blue eyes and a broad grinnish smile.”
Unsurprisingly, the two hit it off. Both had been born in Iowa, then moved around a bit. Lou’s family finally settled in California when she was about 10 years old.
Lou was a tomboy! She loved hiking, camping, and playing sports. She received a good education and seemed prepared to follow a then-expected path: She was going to be a teacher. Then she heard a lecture by a Stanford professor in the spring of 1894. She was soon enrolled at Stanford instead.
Her life would never be the same.
Where to even start describing the active and varied life that would follow, as a result of this simple (but then daring) decision?
She married Bert, and the two traveled the world in conjunction with his mining work: Lou went to China, London, Egypt, Australia, and many other places. A rebellion in China put the Hoovers in a difficult situation, but Lou was on the forefront of the medical effort to help the wounded. In London, she was a gracious social host for her husband, even as she took classes at the London School of Mines. Later, during World War I, Lou began to work on war relief efforts.
At one point, she even left her two sons with family in America so she could go overseas and help. Upon her return, she served as President of the American Women’s War Relief Fund. She went on speaking tours to help war relief efforts. She encouraged Americans to conserve resources and to do without certain scarce items. These efforts were so prominent that they became known as “Hooverizing” or “Hoovering.”
Later, Lou took on other projects, such as helping the founders of the Girl Scouts and broadening opportunities for women to be involved in athletic sports.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear about one controversial event that occurred during Lou’s tenure as First Lady: She invited the wife of a black congressman to the White House for tea. By then, Lou had been all over the world and had lived in many different cultures. The invitation was perfectly normal to her. In that day and age, it unfortunately still caused a bit of controversy for others.
Lou broke other barriers that made life just a bit more free for American women: She included pregnant women in White House receiving lines. She drove a car, even after she was First Lady. She wore pants instead of a skirt when she was at the presidential retreat.
How unfortunate that the wife of our 31st President has been overshadowed by her successor. Lou Hoover was quite a woman in her own right.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (Lewis l. Gould ed., 2d ed. 2001)
Anne Beiser Allen, An Independent Woman: The Life of Lou Henry Hoover (2000)
Dorothy Schneider & Carl J. Schneider, First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary (2010)
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum: Lou Henry Hoover Biographical Sketch
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum: The Hoover Story—Gallery 8: An Uncommon Woman