Sure, you probably know about Iowa’s only US President. But did you know his wife was an amazing humanitarian (and cool as hell)?
Credited with being the person who started Girl Scout cookie sales nationwide, Iowa native and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover also traveled the world, helped save Americans during World War I, fought for working women and saved the Belgium lace industry, worked and traveled the world with her husband (31st US President Herbert Hoover) in active war zones, and got a degree in geology from Stanford University in the 1890s (quite a feat for a woman at that time!).
Brought Girl Scout cookie sales nationwide
Lou Henry Hoover grew up in Waterloo with a love of nature she learned from fishing and camping with her father.
She was deeply involved in the Girl Scouts after its 1912 founding and served as a board member or officer from 1917, until she died in 1944.
In the 1930s, Hoover was serving her second term in the Girl Scouts of America leadership. She was also supporting the Girl Scouts from the White House, and helping ensure the organization survived the Depression.
In 1936, under Hoover’s leadership, the organization licensed the first commercial bakeries rather than having the girls bake the cookies themselves, taking cookie sales national.
She was also the vice president of the National Amateur Athletic Federation in the 1920s and, as an advocate for women’s and girls’ fitness, organized the women’s division.
Helped Americans trapped overseas during WWI
Probably one of the most impactful things for Hoover and her family came during World War I.
Hoover and her husband traveled constantly, mostly for Herbert’s work as a mining engineer. When war broke out in Europe, the Hoovers were trapped in London, and they weren’t the only Americans stranded.
After being asked by the US Ambassador to Britain, Hoover and her husband helped provide clothes, food, information, advice and places to stay while the means were put together to transport Americans back overseas.
Hoover also led the American Women’s War Relief Committee in London.
Fought for working women, saving Belgium’s lace industry
Through the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) started by her husband, she helped Belgian lacemakers find customers for their products, which helped to preserve Belgium’s world-famous lace industry that was threatened by the war.
Every dollar earned went directly to Belgian women.
Samples of that lace are housed in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch.
Hoover organized a branch of the CRB in California and helped raise funds for food shipments, because most of the country’s food came from imports.
In 1917, the Hoovers moved to Washington, D.C. While Herbert worked in the US Food Administration, distributing flour, milk and bread to famine-stricken countries, Hoover worked to get other American women involved in the food conservation program.
World traveler and bad*ss adventurer
The day after her wedding to Herbert, the two left for China—but not on honeymoon. Herbert was a mining engineer and he was there to develop coal mines and build port facilities.
But while the Hoovers were there, the Boxer Rebellion began, and rather than shelter in place, Lou Hoover helped take care of the wounded and collected food, medicine and clothing for the injured.
And she apparently enjoyed it.
“You missed one of the opportunities of your life by not coming to China in the summer of 1900,” she wrote to a friend, calling it “the most interesting siege of the age.”
Hoover also traveled to Egypt, Burma, Australia, Japan, Russia, Germany, Belgium, France, New Zealand and Great Britain. She took camping trips in the Sierra Mountains and drove her 1919 Packard cross-country with her father in 1921.
Her sons, Herbert Jr. (b. 1903) and Allan (b. 1907), often traveled with the family. During those travels, Hoover and her husband also worked together to translate an encyclopedia about mining from 1565, which won them a Gold Medal for lifetime achievement from the International Mining and Metallurgical Society.
Invites first Black woman to White House
As First Lady of the United States (1929-1933), Hoover was the first to speak on the radio, even though she rarely gave speeches because she disliked public speaking.
She also roused some controversy when she invited Jessie De Priest—the Black wife of the first Black representative of the 20th Century, Oscar Stanton De Priest—to the White House.
There are conflicting opinions over whether Hoover extended this invitation with or without prompting. Oscar De Priest had alleged his wife was intentionally left out of events other representative wives attended, like regular tea parties. It was after his outcry that Hoover’s invitation came.
Still, the occasion marked the first time a Black woman had been entertained by a First Lady at the White House.
Lou Henry Hoover left behind 182 linear feet of documentation of her life and work, according to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
She also left behind a Girl Scout organization with more than a million members, and a world made better for her humanitarian work.
Hoover returned to Iowa only a few times over the course of her life: a two-day stay in 1905 on her way to California, and she and her father stopped in various Iowa cities while Herbert was campaigning for president in 1928 and 1932.
When they left the White House, Hoover lived out the rest of her life between Palo Alto, California, and New York City.
She suffered a heart attack on Jan. 7, 1944 and never recovered. Hoover is buried on a hill beside her husband in West Branch, close to the museum.
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