Lou Hoover (1874-1944) was an American first lady (1929-1933) and the wife of Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States. As a child, Lou developed an interest in nature and the outdoors, a passion she would follow to Stanford University, where she became one of the first women in America to earn a degree in geology and met her future husband. The Hoovers traveled the world as Herbert built a successful career in the mining industry, before moving into politics. Lou Hoover kept up an active public role throughout her life; supporting European relief efforts during World War I, serving as the national president of the Girl Scouts and becoming the first first lady to deliver her own radio broadcasts. She earned the respect of many when she boldly invited the wife of the nation’s only black Congressman to a White House reception but also received harsh criticism for her lavish entertaining style, which many considered inappropriate in the midst of the Depression.
Although Lou Henry’s love of the outdoors made her pursuit of a geology degree seem obvious in hindsight, she was uncertain of her professional prospects as a teenager. She obtained her teaching degree from the San Jose Normal School in 1893 and worked as a substitute teacher and bank clerk afterward. Her life changed course when she attended a lecture by Stanford University geology professor John Casper Branner, who inspired her to enroll at the school in 1894. Hoover became the first woman in America to earn a degree in geology. Although she never earned employment in the field, she put her geology (and language) training to use years later by helping Hoover translate the seminal 16th-century mining manual De Re Metallica from Latin to English.
Lou spent the early 1900s visiting such foreign locales as India, Egypt, Australia, Russia and Burma through her husband’s job as a mine inspector, but their days as world travelers nearly ended shortly after they began. Following their move to Tientsin, China, in 1899, the Hoovers found themselves in the midst of the violent, anti-West Boxer Rebellion. Thrusting herself into the thick of the action, Lou helped build protective barricades, volunteered for patrol duty and cared for the wounded. Despite the everyday dangers around them, the Hoovers managed to avoid misfortune until the rebellion was quashed in the summer of 1900.
While living in London at the outbreak of World War I, she established the American Women’s War Relief Fund and the American Women’s Hospital. After her husband was named U.S. secretary of commerce under Warren Harding, she became vice president of the National Amateur Athletic Association in 1922 and president of its women’s division the following year. And in the wake of the Harding administration’s Teapot Dome Scandal, Lou founded the National Women’s Conference on Law Enforcement in 1924.
Lou Hoover also left her mark on the White House. She rounded up furniture that had belonged to the 16th U.S. president and transformed a guest room into the “Lincoln Study,” a precursor to the Lincoln Bedroom established by Harry Truman. She did the same with James Monroe’s furniture, although the “Monroe Room” underwent more renovations before becoming the current Treaty Room. Hoover also collaborated with an aide to compile an extensive inventory of the White House’s collection of historic objects.
Lou remained devoted to her activist and charitable causes after leaving the White House in 1933. She resumed her earlier presidency of the Girl Scouts, overseeing the creation of its famed cookie fundraising drive, and helped found the non-profit Friends of Music at Stanford. Following the Hoovers’ move to New York in 1940, the former first lady spearheaded efforts to gather clothing for World War II refugees as chair of the Western Women’s Committee. She died suddenly of a heart attack after attending a New York City concert in early 1944.