Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover

By Timothy Walch | Go to book overview

Prelude to the New Deal:
Lou Henry Hoover and
Women’s Relief Work

Martha H. Swain

From the earliest of times, there have been compassionate women who have devoted their personal resources and called upon their women colleagues to alleviate the suffering of other women. Lou Henry Hoover’s quiet and reserved crusade from 1929 to 1932 has received little attention, and she has suffered by comparison with her successor, Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a vast number of well-funded federal agencies to respond to her initiatives to deal with the twin problems of unemployment and destitution that befell women after 1929. Exploring the approach of the Hoover administration and its First Lady to the matter of direct and work relief for women introduces another facet for historians who play the now familiar New Deal game we call “Evolution or Revolution.”

Lou Hoover left an archival legacy of more than thirty feet of White House files and reports, which may be read at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. She was accustomed to requests for favors, photographs, autographs, and small personal items that could be sold at charity bazaars. Such had first come to her early in World War I, when she served as president of the American Women’s War Relief Fund. They continued during the 1920s when she was a cabinet wife and increased markedly in 1928 when she was a presidential candidate’s wife. Once she became First Lady in March 1929, the volume of her mail understandably increased, and after the crash of October 1929 requests mushroomed, growing proportionately as the economy plummeted during the early years of the Great Depression, 1929–33.350

The letters reveal the desperation of women who had once been proud and secure, as well as of those who had never known anything but subsistence living. Writing to “Dear First Lady of the Land,” “Kind Mrs. Hoover,” or “Most Excellent Lady,” women sought assistance in many forms, but most often they asked for cash and clothing. By 1930, many were

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