By Molly Bloom
Lou Henry Hoover brought her passion for the outdoors and humanitarian projects from Iowa and California to China and London. Many credit Lou with the transformation of the position of First Lady from the primary role of entertaining guests to a more concerted focus on volunteerism and activism.
Her partnership with President Herbert Hoover allowed her to pursue their shared interests. While he lived in the spotlight, Lou took advantage of her own small platform and made the most of every opportunity.
Love Based on Adventure
Like her future husband, Lou Henry was born in Iowa and moved west, eventually attending Stanford University—where she met Hoover during his final year in college. Their shared experience of living in different parts of the country connected them, and Lou’s love of the outdoors and spirit of adventure seriously attracted Hoover, who was gearing up for a career in mining that would soon take him to Australia.
Hoover left for Australia to start his career while Lou finished her studies at Stanford. The two promised to keep in touch. And once Lou graduated, she launched into an adventure of her own, joining the local Red Cross Chapter to roll bandages for troops in the Spanish American War. (She would eventually become the chapter’s secretary-treasurer.)
Hoover, upon discovering that his work would take him next to China, came home to marry Lou in 1899. More adventure loomed on the horizon. Next, the newlyweds would sail to Shanghai.
The Meaning of Marriage
For Lou, her marriage meant an opportunity for adventure and advancement that would be difficult to achieve as a single woman in her era. Despite graduating Stanford as the first woman with a degree in Geology, she lamented to friends that her A.B. degree did not stand for “A Boy,” and she would not be easily granted a job in her field.
Lou spoke about Hoover’s position in China in her diary and letters to friends, and she asserted herself as an equal partner, saying “we” when referring to his position and career decisions. In Lou Henry Hoover, Nancy Beck Young writes, “Instead of rebelling against male privilege…Lou moved toward marriage and an unpaid public career… she expected a coequal partnership with her husband and used her marriage to expand her public, political rights.” (13).
Lou was seen by Hoover’s colleagues and friends as an equal, independent, and sometimes stubborn companion to the future president. In the Ladies Home Journal, Frederick Palmer shared an account of Hoover requesting Lou leave the city of Tianjin, China as the early stages of the Boxer Rebellion broke out in 1900. Lou stubbornly refused until he acquiesced grumpily, “All right, Lou.”
In the same article, Palmer tells the story of approximately 70 bullets firing on the Hoover household during the rebellion. Lou continued playing a game of solitaire while the wood of the house was splintered by bullets and there was a “fog of disintegrated plaster” (Mayer 79-80).
Stories of her bravery were widely circulated: she armed herself with a .38 pistol, refused to leave her friends and neighbors, rode her bicycle close to walls to avoid bullets, and volunteered medical assistance at the hospitals in the wake of the attacks. Even when her obituary prematurely appeared in a California newspaper, Lou seemed to shrug off the danger and continue the service that she deemed essential.
An Equal Partnership
Hoover’s mining career moved his family to London before the outbreak of WWI. When Belgian families faced starvation and Hoover established the Committee for the Relief of Belgium to provide a supply of food, Lou was in California with her sons. Hoover asked her to rally efforts, so Lou made public speeches that resulted in successful shipments of food reaching Belgium.
Lou also took things further, helping to market Belgian lace to Americans in order to support the Belgian craftswomen in need (Allen 64-5). She created an aid plan for American travelers stranded in Europe and assisted with clothing, childcare, and local accommodations. As Hoover’s career evolved towards public service, Lou matched (and sometimes outmatched) his efforts.
Lou also had projects of her own, separate from her husband’s service. One such endeavor was her work with the Girl Scouts. In 1917, Lou was asked by Girl Scouts founder Juliette Low to join the organization’s leadership. She’d go on to serve many positions over the years, from president to chair of the board.
The role of helping young girls develop social and homemaking expertise, as well as the “scouting” skills that she enjoyed in childhood, resonated with Lou’s love of the outdoors. During the organization’s formative period, Lou helped raise money, improved the Brownie program, and is even credited by some with the original sale of Girl Scout Cookies. She eventually recused herself from the formal leadership position when Hoover was elected to the presidency, but she continued to serve as the honorary president, a position held by the First Lady of the United States since Edith Wilson (who initially accepted the role at Lou’s urging). After the Hoovers left the White House, Lou returned to the Girl Scouts due to her passion for the program.
In the years leading up to Hoover’s presidency, Lou accompanied her husband and asserted herself as a subtle, yet equal, partner in his world travels and philanthropic efforts. Once in the White House, Lou continued to support the Girl Scouts and her other projects, even as she adapted to the role of First Lady. She supported the arts in Washington D.C. and the careers of musicians while also working on campaign strategies for her husband’s party. However, Lou also understood the importance of entertaining and her position as a model American wife, wholesome, unpretentious, and tasteful (Allen 128).
Lou Henry Hoover’s legacy encompasses not only the position of First Lady, but also her lasting public services and programs. In a 1914 letter, she wrote:
“The ambition to do, to accomplish, irrespective of its measure in money or fame, is what should be inculcated. The desire to make the things that are, better- in a little way with what is at hand [or] in a big way if the opportunity comes.”
Lou took advantage of opportunities large and small to make a difference. Today, she serves as a reminder of the importance of supporting humanitarian organizations to further their impact and the value in helping others during difficult times.
Lou Henry Hoover: Activist First Lady by Nancy Beck Young
Lou Henry Hoover: A Prototype for First Ladies by Dale C. Mayer
An Independent Woman: The Life of Lou Henry Hoover by Anne Beiser Allen
Hebert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, West Branch, Iowa