The wife of the president was just that—until a gun-toting geologist named Lou Hoover moved into the East Wing.
In the spring of 1929, the White House was busy preparing for a tea party. This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill White House tea party: It was a top secret shindig, with staffers and the Secret Service under strict orders not to speak of it.
All the fuss was because one of the 15 invitees on the guest list, Jessie DePriest, the wife of Illinois representative Oscar DePriest, was African-American. Not since Theodore Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington over for dinner three decades prior had a black person paid a social visit to the White House. But now, in the height of the Jim Crow era, Lou Hoover, wife of Herbert, was undeterred. She wanted DePriest to come, and her office had drafted and redrafted the guest list to include people who would accept her at the table.
Despite efforts to keep the party under wraps, the press found out, and, sure enough, a furor ensued. Newspapers lambasted the first lady for “defiling” the White House; the state legislatures of Texas, Georgia, and Florida passed resolutions rebuking her. Lou didn’t apologize. Although the reaction bothered her, she refused to acknowledge the controversy publicly. After all, this was nothing compared to the stress she had coolly handled while living in China, where she laughed off death threats during the Boxer Rebellion.
In many ways, Lou Hoover was the first truly modern first lady. She was one of the first first ladies to drive her own car (to the chagrin of the Secret Service), give radio addresses, and create a separate policy agenda for the East Wing. Usually, it’s Eleanor Roosevelt who comes to mind when people think of first ladies who made their own mark. But it was Lou who set an undeniable precedent for Eleanor herself, as well as future first ladies.
Lou Henry in 1891.
Lou was independent from the start. She enrolled at Stanford in 1894 and was the first female to graduate with a degree in geology, becoming one of only a handful of female geologists in the country. It was at Stanford that she met Herbert—at a dinner party where geology professor John Casper Branner (a mentor to both Herbert and Lou) and his wife had played matchmaker and seated the two together. They bonded immediately over a mutual interest—rocks.
An intensely private person, Lou waited until her graduation, three years after Bert’s, to tell anyone she planned to marry him. Even the Branners didn’t know how successful their matchmaking had been: “I thought they were just pals,” Mrs. Branner is quoted as saying in Nancy Beck Young’s Lou Henry Hoover: Activist First Lady. Bert’s proposal arrived via telegram: “Going to China via San Francisco. Will you go with me?” Three months later, he showed up in California. Within two weeks, they were married. Twenty-four hours after that, they were on the S.S. Coptic, headed to the Pacific.
It was nearly impossible for a woman, no matter how qualified, to land a geology job at the time. So while Bert worked as a consulting engineer to the Chinese government for a lucrative $20,000 salary, Lou busied herself learning Chinese. She did, however, sometimes follow Bert underground to inspect the mines, often to the shock of the miners.
Lou Henry Hoover in Tientsin, China, 1900.
By the summer of 1900, the Boxer Rebellion—a grassroots movement aimed at quashing foreign influences—had consumed the country. That June, the Empress Dowager Cixi declared war on all foreigners. But that didn’t bother Lou. She patrolled her garden with a .38 caliber pistol, rode her bike around town until a bullet blew out one of her tires, and calmly played solitaire as shells fell at her front door. As the danger grew, Bert tried to convince Lou to leave. She refused to go until he did too.
That August, the couple left China. A year later they landed in London, where Bert’s company was based, and after a couple of years they began raising two boys. Kids in tow, Lou accompanied Bert to Burma, Egypt, India, Russia, and Australia. Though neither of them had grown up rich, mining was lucrative, and the Hoovers were on their way to becoming millionaires by the end of their twenties. Wealth liberated Lou from housework, allowing her to take advantage of the freedoms available to women of her class: traveling, domestic help, and the luxury of time‚ which she spent collecting rock samples and sending them to Branner. It was during this period that Lou, who would eventually become fluent in five languages, published an award-winning Latin-to-English translation of a 1565 guide to mining and metallurgy.
After World War I began, Lou moved her sons to California and then returned to Europe to help Bert coordinate food and financial aid in neutral Belgium. (She was decorated by King Albert I for her work there.) When the U.S. entered the war, she moved to Washington, D.C. and started a couple of boardinghouses, including one for female employees of the Food Administration, which Bert was now heading. After the war, her husband’s political prospects blossomed—in 1920, his name was floated as a possible presidential candidate, and in 1921, he became Commerce Secretary. When he ran for president seven years later, he snagged 444 electoral votes.
Before moving into the White House, Lou knew she could reinvent the role of first lady. Instead of setting fashion trends like her predecessor, Grace Coolidge, Lou used her husband’s professional standing to do work for the causes she considered most important. She continued to teach women to respond to crises and disasters as she had during World War I and advocated for their right to participate in sporting events such as the Olympics.
Hoover also worked extensively with the Girl Scouts.
Soon Lou was helping address another crisis. Just eight months after Hoover took office, the market crashed. People in need flooded the first lady with a stream of letters. Usually, they pleaded for money or clothes, though one old man simply asked that she send a plant to his wife. (Lou sent two: an ivy and a begonia.)
As the mailbox overflowed, Lou began to organize. She hired a staff to handle the letters and implemented a system. When the problem could be handled by a government agency, Lou’s office forwarded it. Cases dear to her heart were sent to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, while others were delivered to the offices of the Girl Scouts. (As national president from 1922 to 1925, she helped grow the small club into a thriving organization.) Her office coordinated with more than 40 federal, state, local, and private groups to provide relief. In situations where Lou knew none of the organizations could help, she would forward a letter to a personal friend of hers, asking for help on this one case—and then quietly send whatever money was needed too.
The quasi-governmental organization Lou created was unlike anything a first lady had done before. It acted as an informal clearinghouse, coordinating aid, independent of the president’s office. It helped, but not nearly enough—and neither did the Hoover administration’s policies. After one disastrous term in the White House, Lou and Bert left D.C.—and the Roosevelts moved in. Eleanor Roosevelt picked up where Lou left off. Her early relief efforts mirrored the system Lou had set up.
Before the Hoovers moved out, Eleanor came by the White House for a tour. Lou took her from room to room, pointing out which pieces of furniture would stay. In one of the oval-shaped parlors, Eleanor mentioned she liked the curtains. Lou offered to leave them behind. That’s the kind of woman she was—quietly generous.
America wasn’t as generous with the Hoovers: With the country still in dire financial straits, Americans rushed to disown anything having to do with them. The couple did little to argue their own defense. Lou remained characteristically tight-lipped about her work, even keeping secrets about her charities from her husband. When she died of a heart attack in 1944, Bert found, to his surprise, a stash of checks in her desk—hundreds of them. They were from cash-strapped people she had helped over the years, looking to repay her. Lou had refused to cash them.
The above article by Sarah Laskow is reprinted with permission from the September 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.