Lou Henry Hoover was born and grew up during a time when the roles of women were changing. Property laws had changed for married women; traditionally male colleges were beginning to admit women; and more and more women were going to college and preparing for careers of their own.
Many of these women remained single, because even though appliances were being introduced to make homemaking easier, it was still a full time job, especially if the family included children. Another way that women were fulfilling their desire to have a career was by becoming a partner with their husband. Lou Henry Hoover was her husband’s partner in every sense.
Lou Henry was born March 29, 1874 in Waterloo, Iowa to Charles and Florence Ida Weed Henry. Her only sibling was a sister eight years her junior, and her mother was often unwell, so Lou spent a good deal of time with her father camping, hiking, and horseback riding. When it came time to go to college, she chose a school that boasted of the “best gymnasium west of the Mississippi,” and then moved on to a teacher’s college to get her certificate, but she wasn’t satisfied intellectually.
Lou loved everything associated with the outdoors, including rocks, so when she heard a lecture from a Stanford geology professor, she decided that geology was what she wanted to do. She enrolled in Stanford and became the only woman in the geology department and later the first American woman to get a degree in geology. Stanford satisfied her intellectual needs and she also discovered what would become her life’s work – Herbert Hoover.
Lou and Herbert were born the same year, both in Iowa, but they didn’t meet until Lou arrived at Stanford. Herbert was in his final year and was very shy and introverted. They initially met in one of the geology labs, but didn’t begin to get to know each other until they were paired at a dinner party given by one of the geology professors. They found that they had many things in common and began to spend a lot of time together enjoying the outdoors.
Once Herbert graduated, he began his career with small jobs in the area and by the time he got his first big break, he and Lou were informally engaged. Herbert had graduated with degrees in geology and mining engineering and his first major job took him to Australia to develop a gold mine. In the meantime Lou finished her degree and began teaching.
Lou had told her sorority sisters that she and Herbert would get married as soon as he had a job that would keep him in one place for a while. It would be a long time before that happened, so they decided not to wait. He had done an excellent job in Australia developing new methods for mining, so soon he was offered the job of Chief Engineer for a mining company in China. He telegraphed his marriage proposal to Lou and she accepted by return wire. They decided to be married immediately and honeymoon in route to China.
Lou and Herbert were married February 10, 1899 at her parent’s house in Monterrey, CA. They immediately loaded their suitcases with books on Chinese culture and history and headed to San Francisco to sail for China. After a few days in a hotel in Shanghai they moved into their new home in the foreign settlement of Tianjin, China.
From the beginning Lou was a partner with her husband. Part of his job was locating new sites for mines which required travel through rugged wilderness terrain. She loved the adventure and helped Herbert with paperwork and maps. She also loved entertaining and opened their home to other people within the foreign community and to Herbert’s employees. However, it became too dangerous for Lou to go out on expeditions, and soon Herbert pulled all of his people in from the field. They had arrived in China during the midst of the Boxer Rebellion.
The Boxer Rebellion was a nationalist movement opposing foreign influence and Christianity. At the end of June 1900, the Boxers laid siege to the foreign settlement in Tianjin. The people set up a barricade with sacks of flour and rice and a makeshift hospital. Lou helped to tend the wounded and served tea to the men manning the barricades. She was calm and collected in spite of having her bicycle tire shot out while she was riding to the hospital one day and having a shell come through a window and explode in her house taking out a support column for the staircase. Reports say that when people rushed into the house to see if she was okay, she was sitting at a table playing solitaire. She calmly told them that she was having trouble winning that game and that the shelling was over for now because the shells always came in groups of three. The siege lasted until foreign troops arrived July 13 and defeated the rebels.
This same calm confidence would also serve Lou well during their next stop in London. Herbert’s new job required world-wide travel. Lou went with him and after their two boys were born in 1903 and 1907, they traveled as well. Both children embarked on their first journeys at the young age of 5 – 6 weeks. The Hoover’s conclusion was that infants traveled better than most adults.
The Hoovers were planning to return to the United States when WWI broke out. They stayed and from their London home helped displaced Americans by distributing food, clothing, cash, and finally tickets home. While they were waiting, Lou helped them keep their children occupied with museum tours and other activities. She also got involved in organizing women to support the troops, even starting a knitting factory to provide work for unemployed women and clothing for the army. When this was winding down, Herbert’s considerable organizational skills were noticed by the American ambassador and he was approached to become the chairman of the Belgian Relief effort. As usual Lou helped Herbert in this undertaking as well and was presented with the Cross Chevalier, Order of Leopold by King Leopold of Belgium for her efforts.
When the US entered the war, Hoover was called back to Washington to head the Food Administration and later to direct the European relief efforts. During these years, Lou began doing more public speaking, raising money for the relief efforts for Belgium during the war and for all of Europe after the war. Herbert Hoover is often called “The Great Humanitarian,” but his success was in no small part due to Lou’s tireless efforts.
After Herbert became part of Harding’s Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce, their lives revolved around Washington DC. They were constantly entertaining, but these were almost always working meetings. The Hoovers both deplored inefficiency, so their entertaining had to be productive. Lou also persuaded the other Cabinet wives to discontinue the practice of spending 3 or 4 afternoons a week leaving their cards at other people’s houses.
The years in the White House were difficult ones. They still entertained; in fact the White House staff reported that the only time the Hoovers ate alone in the first three years was on their wedding anniversary each year. Lou also became the first First Lady to speak regularly on the radio. Yet from the beginning, this very sociable woman protected their privacy in a way that many First Ladies didn’t, even prohibiting reporters from taking casual photos and providing studio portraits instead. Devastated by Hoover’s loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, it was probably a relief to retire to their Palo Alto home.
Lou Hoover was an interesting mix of feminist causes and traditional ideals. She didn’t get involved in the suffrage movement, but once women were able to vote, she encouraged them to do their patriotic duty and got involved with the League of Women Voters. She encouraged girls to get an education and prepare for a career, but said that she believed that a couple could only sustain one career, the husband’s or the wife’s. Although her ideas were inclined toward more freedom and independence for women, she embraced a very traditional role for herself. In this she reflected the changing and sometimes contradictory views of women in society at the time. This was also possible because she was fortunate to find a life partner who respected her considerable abilities and intellect.
Although Herbert would be called back into public service by President Truman to direct the European relief effort after WWII, he would have to do it alone. On January 7, 1944, while changing clothes between a concert and dinner, Lou had a heart attack and died. But this very public woman had one last secret. During the White House years especially, Lou had given many speeches encouraging people to reach out to help their neighbors and communities during the hard years, but even Herbert didn’t know the extent to which she was doing it herself until after she died. Many people contacted him after her death wondering why checks had stopped coming. This is one of the reasons that Herbert requested that her papers be sealed for 40 years after her death, to protect the privacy of the people she helped.
Lou was a very accomplished woman. She spoke five languages, including Mandarin Chinese. Together she and Herbert translated from Latin to English a 16th century mining text, De re metallica, which was well received by the scientific community and is still available today. She also designed their Palo Alto home. But when asked, Lou would say that her vocation was helping her husband in his career, and that is the way she was remembered. The Memphis Scimitar after her death said that “One of Mrs. Hoover’s chief characteristics was her ability to be of great aid to her husband yet remain completely in the background.”
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Lou Hoover: Gallant First Lady by Helen B. Pryor M.D.
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.