Lou Henry Hoover
Nancy Beck Young
Who was Lou Henry Hoover, and what made her tick? This question, which seems simple enough at first glance, actually poses a significant challenge for me as a biographer of Lou Hoover. To tell someone’s life story in an honest and an engaging fashion, the subject of the biography must be made the focus of most every paragraph in the manuscript. More than that, I, as the biographer, have to go back and look at her world through her eyes. However, the biographer’s odyssey does not end there. Because I am also a historian, I must also interpret and analyze Hoover’s life in the larger context in which it unfolded. This essay, because it describes the highlights of my research, is as much about the art of biography as it is my penultimate findings about Lou Henry Hoover. For the latter you, and I, will have to wait a few years until the book is entirely researched and written. Nevertheless, I have a working title, “Forgotten Feminist: Lou Henry Hoover as First Lady,” and a working thesis.
Lou Henry Hoover lived an exceptional life, and she shared the public stage with many prominent individuals. Her years as an activist coincided with a dynamic period of history. An abiding commitment to women’s issues placed her in the forefront of individuals who widened the options available to women. However, her placement of her role as wife and mother as the priority of her life suggests that the word “feminist,” used without qualification, is not entirely appropriate for Hoover. Indeed, she never described herself as a feminist, nor did she associate with the more radical activists for women. Still, her voluntary activism, especially with organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation, reveals a dedication to women’s equality that paralleled the work of social feminists, who sought protective legislation for women in the 1920s. Her continued encouragement for younger women to balance traditional gender roles with paid public careers exemplified a