Historians have not been particularly interested in First Ladies, with the exceptions of a few such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Abigail Adams. This is in part because their political roles have been largely unseen, hidden in the "private" world of formal entertaining, and because the discipline of women's studies that emerged in the 1970s initially disdained them. First Ladies, most women's studies practitioners initially thought, were no more than elite white women who had happened to marry well and were therefore of no particular consequence to serious scholars. As Edith Mayo pointed out during the Division of U.S. Studies' book launch (co-sponsored by the Sewall-Belmont House and the National Women's History Museum) of Nancy Beck Young's Lou Henry Hoover, however, the last 8-10 years have brought the realization that women's public and private lives intersect. This is notable in the case of First Ladies, whose performance in their private roles had political consequences.

Prof. Young's volume suggests that Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) was an activist First Lady who in many ways forecast the more visible roles played by her successors. As a young wife during World War I, she was a full partner as Herbert Hoover organized European relief efforts. Her activities included creation of a program by which lace made by war-impoverished Belgian women could be sold to Americans. When Herbert Hoover returned to the United States to run the Food Administration, Lou Henry created the Food Administration Club to assist the many young women moving to Washington to work in the wartime bureaucracy. She began to cooperate with the Girl Scouts on the subject of wartime food conservation and, in 1921, became president of that organization.

When the Hoovers moved into the White House in early 1929, Lou Henry recognized that social and political networks in Washington were intertwined and that the White House parties that catered to the Washington elite could be used to further political agendas. She established a more democratic mode of entertaining by treating those who attended the parties as guests rather than as visitors to a museum, doing away with receiving lines and encouraging more mingling. She organized frequent dinner parties to give the president a mental break from the pressures of managing the country, and her control of the guest list affected the views that he heard and the people with whom he was able to speak quietly. Faced both with a city that endorsed segregation and with the obligation to hold an annual tea for congressional wives, she maneuvered to include the wife of Oscar DePriest, the first African American elected to Congress since Reconstruction. The resultant outcry, which hurt the president's attempts to achieve political realignment in the South, accounted in part for the very low profile the First Lady kept thereafter and that has prevented her political impact from being more widely known.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1931, Hoover drew upon her volunteerism with the Girl Scouts and the president's own ideology of volunteerism. She formed the East Wing Relief Bureau to coordinate the responses to the numerous letters from Americans appealing to the White House for assistance. She expanded her staff to research claims and refer cases to the charities and agencies closest to the people in need, often relying on her wealthy contacts for support and dipping into her own resources – always anonymously. One personal project she and her husband initiated was the establishment of a school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, near the Camp Rapidan presidential retreat, which brought education and a modicum of social services to the area.

While Hoover played an important role in women's history, her work has been overshadowed by subsequent First Ladies and, Prof. Young suggested, her legacy was undermined by her own intellectual make-up. Hoover firmly believed that the results of modernity could be countered by volunteerism, and never acknowledged the limits of private philanthropy or the need to look for more systemic solutions. In addition, her failure to understand the press and to maintain good relations with it prevented her relief efforts from having wider reaching results. As Prof. Beasley noted, the five Washington newspapers that existed during the Hoover years frequently reported on Washington society, with the White House dinners being of particular interest. Unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, who often engaged the media, Hoover tried to keep them at a distance. Some of the women reporters saw Mrs. Hoover's lack of input as especially hurtful to their careers. Left to their own devices, the media resorted to gossip or investigative reporting to get their news and often depicted her in an unfavorable light.

Edith Mayo praised Young's work for expanding the scholarship on First Ladies so as to place them in a larger historical context. The American hostility to the idea of political power in the hands of women, Mayo declared, accounts in part for the lack of recognition given to the work of many First Ladies. Dolley Madison and Sarah Polk, for example, were adept at using entertaining to advance political agendas. Edith Roosevelt built on the work of Caroline Harrison in spearheading the development of the West Wing. Society's reluctance to acknowledge the political role of women has long affected historians' view of First Ladies, and Young's work is an important corrective.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

  • See the commentary by Maurine Beasley.

  • See the commentary by Edith Mayo.