Lou Henry Hoover – Unsung Heroine


Lou Henry Hoover served as First Lady from 1929 to 1933. There is much about her that never made it into the public view or knowledge, and as a result, she is very underrated and under appreciated. She deserves a more prominent place in our history.

Lou was born in 1874, the same year as her husband Herbert, in a small Iowa town less than 100 miles from Herbert’s. She never met Herbert until they were both students at Stanford University in California. Lou’s mother was often ill, and her only sibling was a sister eight years her junior. As a result, she was drawn very close to her father, and accompanied him horseback riding, hiking, camping, and fishing.

For college, she first chose a normal school that claimed to have “the best gymnasium west of the Mississippi” and then switched to a teachers’ college from which she earned a certificate in 1894. Neither of those schools, nor a job as a clerk in her father’s bank, satisfied her.

While working in her father’s bank, she attended a lecture by a Stanford University geology professor. She became interested in geology, and enrolled at Stanford as the first female geology major in the school’s history. During her freshman year at Stanford, she met Herbert Hoover, then a senior. By the time she graduated, Herbert was already earning $40,000 a year as an engineer in Australia. He wired his proposal to her from Australia.

He returned to the United States to marry Lou and take her to his new post as head of China’s mine program. Since they had to catch a ship for China the very next day, they didn’t have time to find a Quaker minister (Herbert’s faith) or an Episcopalian (Lou’s faith). They were married in a civil ceremony by a family friend who happened to be a Catholic priest.

Just a few months after arriving, the Hoovers found themselves in the middle of the “Boxer” Rebellion. A secret society of nationalists, the Boxers sought to rid China of foreigners. The Boxers began to launch violent attacks on the international community. Lou Hoover’s trips into the interior of the country were quickly ended, and in June of 1900, Herbert called in all his workers.

To protect themselves, Tientsin’s foreigners blockaded themselves in the international section of the city. The Hoovers lived on the edge of the international compound, and moved into a friend’s home in the center of the protected area. But they returned to their home just before the attack began. An American journalist who had taken refuge in the Hoover’s home described Lou’s bravery under fire. He told how, when the shelling started, Lou went to the door to see where the first shell hit, only to find a large hole in the back yard. Expecting more shells to follow, Lou sat down in the living room and played solitaire. Even though a Japanese soldier was blown to bits outside her front door and the stairway banister was splintered by stray bullets, she continued to calmly play cards.

During the siege, the international community had only two doctors. Lou volunteered to help in the hospital, even though it meant dodging bullets to ride her bicycle to the makeshift hospital.

Lou Hoover lived in China for only two years, but she developed a lifelong interest in all things Chinese. She was especially fond of the porcelains of the Ming and K’ang periods. She also learned to speak Mandarin fluently, and although Herbert never mastered the language as well as his wife, the couple spoke Mandarin whenever they wanted to communicate privately in front of other people.

After China, they moved to London. Herbert became a partner in a mining company that consulted all over the world. Until the partnership ended in 1908, their “Red Rood” house served as a gathering place for the foreign community in London. Herbert was not a hit socially. He was awkward in conversation unless it was about mining. One woman described him as “the rudest man in London.” But Lou’s charm and grace made everyone feel welcome, and continued to draw people to their home.

Throughout this period, Lou and their two young sons traveled the world. Both her sons took their first trip at five weeks of age. In 1910 alone, the Hoovers lived for periods in the British Isles, France, Russia, Burma, Korea, and Japan.

It was also during this period that Lou Hoover undertook her great intellectual achievement. She translated into English a sixteenth-century text on metals. Agricola’s De Re Metallica was particularly challenging because the German author, George Bauer, had coined some of the terms when he published the work in Latin in 1556. Finding English equivalent phrases required extensive knowledge of both science and language, an unlikely combination as reviewers of the book pointed out after it was published. The work took five years, and won for Lou the Mining and Metallurgical Society’s gold award as well as considerable attention and praise from the scholarly community.

When war broke out in 1914, the Hoovers were in London preparing to return to California. Herbert stayed to help stranded Americans, and then headed the food relief program for Belgium and northern France. He then returned home to become food administrator for the United States after it entered the war.

During this time, Lou traveled, with considerably less fanfare, back and forth between England and the United States. In London, she worked with the American Women’s Committee to set up canteens, maintain a hospital, and operate a fleet of Red Cross ambulances. In the United States, she gave speeches and raised money for the war effort.

She also publicized strategies for food conservation, and invited reporters into her home to show how she achieved “wheatless and meatless days” and cut sugar consumption. The Ladies Home Journal published an article titled “Dining With the Hoovers” in March 1918 which included information on menus she fed her family.

After Herbert became Secretary of Commerce, Lou continued her public role. Lou disliked the century-and-a-half-old tradition of cabinet wives making and returning social calls on each other. Lou resolved to end the “mindless leaving of cards” and got the other cabinet wives to agree to stop the afternoon calls, thus ending the tradition. Lou spoke out for women’s athletics and was the only female member of the board of the National Amateur Athletic Association. She also spoke out to encourage young women to consider careers in addition to marriage saying that women who used children as an excuse for not working outside the home were “lazy.”

In 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected President. Lou Hoover prepared to enter the White House. She possessed an abundance of ability, training and experience, and the confidence she needed to be an unusual and outstanding First Lady. Next week, we will see how she brought her own style to the White House.

Upon Herbert’s election as President, Lou moved into the White House ready for the new challenges. She declared the White House “as bleak as a New England barn” and quickly rearranged virtually every piece of furniture and added some of her own. More importantly, she organized a system of cataloging the mansion’s furnishings. Many First Ladies had a priority of learning a new language, but Lou Hoover already spoke five languages. Yet, when questioned about her abilities, she equivocated. She did not try to make herself over with new clothes, though she could certainly afford it.

The White House staff found the Hoovers a mix of international sophistication and small town customs. At Christmas, Lou arranged for family and friends to trek through a darkened house with the girls and women ringing handbells and the boys and men carrying candles. The staff dismissed it all as “ghostly” and “another of Mrs. Hoover’s ideas.” Although she had a reputation for liking to talk (the servants called it “broadcasting”), she relied on hand signals during parties and official functions to communicate with employees. The staff considered it dehumanizing and complicated.

Unlike the Coolidges before them who were not used to having servants and tended to treat them as equals, the Hoovers had supervised large household staffs since their China days. More than one disgruntled White House servant complained in print about uncaring treatment from the Hoovers.

The housekeeper, Ava Long, described many examples, such as shopping for a luncheon for six people only to find that forty would be coming with only a half hour’s notice. Once, she instructed the chef to grind up everything in the refrigerator and serve it as a croquette with mushroom sauce. When a guest asked for the recipe, she sarcastically called it “White House Surprise Supreme.” The Head Usher called the Hoovers the least likeable of his bosses when he published his memoirs “Forty-two Years at the White House.”

But others praised Lou Hoover as her husband’s greatest asset. She was tireless in her willingness to welcome groups to the White House. In her busiest year, 1932, she gave forty teas and received eighty organizations. Camp Rapidan, the Hoover retreat in the Shenandoah Mountains, became an extension where Lou invited representatives of the Girl Scouts and spoke by radio to the nation’s youth. Much of her generosity, including a school for poor children near Camp Rapidan, came from her own pocketbook.

Lou Hoover had a strong dislike of publicizing her personal life, and that kept her more appealing side private from most Americans. Like her husband, Lou Hoover had a deep resentment “of the intrusion of the press and public into our family life.” Even Herbert did not learn until after Lou’s death in 1944, how many people Lou helped. Many people who Lou Hoover had supported for years wrote to ask why the checks they were receiving suddenly stopped. Lou’s desire to protect the privacy of the people she was helping led to the decision to keep her papers and records private for forty years after her death.

The fascinating contradiction in Lou Hoover’s attitude towards publicity is even more intriguing when you consider the very public role she played as First Lady. While keeping her personal life and affairs very private, she used the media to get her activist message across. She spoke to nation-wide audiences on radio. She even set up a lab on the second floor of the White House to “test” her performances and improve her radio talks.

Lou’s speeches had a definite feminist slant. On a Saturday evening in June 1929, she spoke to a group of 4-H club members at Camp Rapidan, and the National Broadcasting Company broadcast the speech nationally. She urged her listeners to help make their homes a more attractive place, a responsibility, she said, as much of boys as of girls. She then chided the boys to help with the cleaning and dishes: “Boys, remember you are just as great factors in the home making of the family as are the girls.” An unusual message for 1929.

There were other ways in which Lou Hoover exerted a surprisingly modern and liberal influence. She invited noticeably pregnant women, who had traditionally been excluded, to join her in reception lines, and she encouraged women to pursue individual careers. In December 1932, Executive Order 5984 amended the Civil Service Rule VII to require nominations “without regard to sex,” unless the duties to be performed could be done only by men or women. Students of the Hoover Administration believe that Lou influenced her husband on this and other such matters. In his single term, Herbert Hoover named seven women to positions requiring Senate approval, bringing the total up to 20, double the number it had been in 1920.

On delicate social matters that were important to the Washington political community, Lou Hoover increased her workload rather than risk offending anyone. When a protocol feud erupted between Dolly Gann, sister of the widowed Vice-President, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wife of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Lou gave two parties instead of one to avoid either being assigned social precedence over the other.

One event in particular showed Lou Hoover’s unknown dedication to people and equal rights. One of the duties of the First Lady was to entertain the wives of congressmen. Chicago Congressman Oscar DePriest was the first Negro to serve in the legislature since Reconstruction. No black person had been a guest at the White House since Teddy Roosevelt dined with Booker T. Washington, a move Teddy never repeated after the backlash of public opinion against him for it. Lou understood that an invitation to Jessie DePriest could have very unpleasant repercussions. In spite of that, Lou Hoover sounded out other congressional wives and found a dozen or so who would not embarrass Mrs. DePriest and gave a separate tea for them.

When word of the invitation got out, several southern publications objected, saying that Lou Hoover had “defiled the White House.” The Mobile Alabama Press charged that Lou had offered the nation “an arrogant insult.” Social mixing of the two races would not do, newspapers claimed, especially in the nation’s most famous home.

Lou Hoover’s determination to hold the DePriest tea as scheduled, in spite of criticism, reinforced her growing reputation as egalitarian. She drove herself around Washington, and invited a wide variety of people to dinners. Woman’s Home Journal noted that she “does not keep the rules, but mixes the great and the near-great with the obscure and the near obscure.”

Any woman willing to brave such controversy and criticism might have been expected to be more open with the press. But Lou Hoover was far less open with reporters than she had been in her early days in Washington. White House reporters suffered such a dry spell that they resorted to unprecedented tactics to get stories and information. Bess Furman managed to get into the family quarters by posing as one of a group of girl scouts performing Christmas carols. She dressed in the traditional uniform with her hair tucked under her cap, and passed herself off as “one of the taller girls.” She kept her face down, surreptitiously taking in details so she could write an account of how the President’s family celebrated Christmas. Furman sent a copy of the article to Lou Hoover, who marked it “nice story” without ever discovering who provided the details.

In political matters, Lou took a much more traditional role as First Lady. If she ever disagreed with the President on any matter, she kept it to herself. She made her suggestions for economic recovery fit her husband’s. Her public pronouncements on how to end the Great Depression reinforced her husband’s belief in relying on volunteerism. Even after Herbert lost the 1932 election, she went on national radio to continue to encourage women to volunteer. She said that if everybody helped, there would be plenty of food and clothing for all.

More so than most of her predecessors, Lou Hoover had exceptional ability, training, and experience for leadership, and she foreshadowed Elenor Roosevelt in her considerable energy and active participation in her husband’s presidency. Alice Roosevelt Longworth credited Lou Hoover with being the first president’s wife “to take a public part on her own.” But Lou’s natural reticence unfortunately isolated her.

A letter written by Lou Hoover, not long before her death in 1944, to her husband and sons, revealed her view of her life. The woman who started out camping and fishing like a boy, and then proceeded to earn a geology degree equal to her husband’s, ended up describing her life as entirely peripheral to him and their sons: “I have been lucky to have my trail move alongside that of such exceptional men and boys.”