Annette B. Dunlap is an independent scholar and journalist. She is the author of Frank: The Story of Frances Folsom Cleveland, America’s Youngest First Lady; The Gambler’s Daughter: A Personal and Social History; and Charles Gates Dawes: A Life. Her newest book, A Woman of Adventure: The Life and Times of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover (Potomac Books, 2022), is now available.
My friend, Michelle Gullion, the archivist at the National First Ladies Library, in Canton, Ohio, suggested I consider writing a biography of first lady Lou Henry Hoover. “Why should I write about her?” I asked.
Michelle replied, “She is one of our underrepresented first ladies, and I think her story is interesting.”
In 2013, I began research on Lou and after nearly ten years of work, Michelle was absolutely right.
Lou Henry Hoover’s contributions to American life are not well-known. Her four-year tenure in the White House, from 1929 to 1933, is defined by the onset of the Great Depression and obscured by the accomplishments of her successor, Eleanor Roosevelt. At Lou’s death on January 7, 1944, her husband, Herbert Hoover (Bert), ordered her papers sealed until twenty years after his own death. Bert outlived his wife by nearly twenty-one years, dying on October 20, 1964. Researchers did not gain access to her papers until 1985.
My biography, A Woman of Adventure: The Life and Times of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, is the first comprehensive biography of Lou to be published in nineteen years. It reflects the latest scholarship and research available regarding this remarkable woman.
In the decades before Bert was elected president, Lou was active in a variety of organizations that reflected her wide-ranging interests and her generous spirit. The first woman Geology major to graduate from Stanford University, Lou, together with Bert, translated De Re Metallica, an authoritative Latin work on mining engineering written in the sixteenth century. Their translation won them the first gold medal awarded by the Mining and Metallurgical Society of America.
The Hoovers were living in London at the outbreak of World War I, and Lou loaned countless stranded Americans money from her personal funds to defray their expenses and helped them find tickets to return home. After Bert and his colleagues established the Commission for the Relief of Belgium for the purposes of securing foodstuffs to feed the nation, Lou crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean to raise funds for the Commission. (Germany invaded Belgium in the first days of the war and attempted to starve the population.)
Lou worked with other American women to establish sewing factories to provide employment and an income for the wives of British soldiers. She oversaw the establishment of a hospital for the war wounded and the purchase of an ambulance for their transport from the front. She worked with the Queen of Belgium to find markets for fine Belgian lace, an undertaking that provided incomes to Belgian families.
After the United States entered the war in April 1917, Bert and Lou left London permanently and rented a home in Washington, DC. Bert had accepted a position as Food Administrator with the Wilson Administration. Lou agreed to serve as a Girl Scout commissioner for the District of Columbia and was named a national vice president in 1918.
Lou became national president of the Scouts in 1922, and she assumed the position of chair of the board in 1925. During her tenure, Lou professionalized the Scouts, sought to get the organization on a solid financial footing, and oversaw the construction of Girl Scout camps nationwide. It is safe to say that were it not for Lou’s dedication to scouting, the organization may not have survived to celebrate its centennial anniversary in 2012.
Lou, like Bert, has a reputation for coldness and indifference to Americans’ suffering during the Depression. I found this to be a misrepresentation of their response, fostered to a certain extent by Bert’s political enemies. Lou believed in the importance of individuals maintaining their dignity and self-esteem. Public assistance as we know it today did not exist during the Hoover presidency. However, a national ethos of neighbor-helping-neighbor, volunteerism, and community sharing was common. Through radio addresses to the nation, her work with the scouts, and the help of other women professionals, Lou sought to encourage local efforts to offset the disastrous effects of the Depression. Lou was active in helping her husband find ways to turn the nation around. History has shown these remedies could not overcome the depth of the economic downturn.
In March 1933, Lou moved into the home she had designed and built fifteen years earlier in her beloved Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. She was a familiar figure in town, walking to the store and carrying her own bags of groceries home. She hosted women students for teas, worked to create a Friends of Music series at Stanford, and promoted the establishment of a School of Physical Therapy at the university. At the outbreak of World War II, Lou once again jumped into philanthropic work by overseeing a clothing drive undertaken by the Salvation Army.
Lou Henry Hoover merits closer study as both an influential American woman and one of the nation’s first ladies. In many ways, I feel as if I have merely scratched the surface of Lou’s contributions, and I hope that my biography will encourage others to learn more about this little-known figure in our national life.