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Lou Hoover: Blazing Trails in Women’s Empowerment

Bush Center exhibit explores the impact of America's First Ladies

“The independent girl is truly of quite modern origin, and usually is a most bewitching little piece of humanity,” Lou Henry Hoover is quoted as having said. Though she was likely referring to participants in Girl Scouts, an organization she strongly supported, Hoover could easily have been speaking about herself.

Daring and inquisitive, she became a skilled horsewoman, hunter, and taxidermist as a young woman and later attended Stanford University during a time when few women went to college. Hoover became the first woman to earn a degree in geology at the school. She married her classmate, Herbert Hoover, and served as First Lady during his presidency, from 1929 to 1933.

First Ladies: Style of Influence, an exhibit currently on view at the Bush Center, explores Lou Hoover’s contributions to culture, as well as those of every other acting First Lady, from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. Artifacts connected to the women are used to dig deeper into the significance of the role of First Lady.

The exhibit’s artifacts connected to Hoover include her Girl Scout uniform and her movie camera. She used the latter to capture the first color videos of the White House. Hoover also addressed the public via video on many occasions. She recognized the power of the latest media innovations, called the “talkies,” which allowed sound and video to be recorded simultaneously.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts, Deputy Director of the Women’s Initiative at the Bush Center and an organizer of the exhibit, explains, “She wanted to connect with the populace of the US and leveraged the opportunity she had in her role. Technology and innovation had progressed, and she was the first First Lady to recognize the value of the talkies and to use them to connect to the American public.”

Of the other artifact connected to Hoover, Gonnella-Platts says, “Her Girl Scout uniform speaks to the idea of … how we empower girls and adolescent women.” Gonnella-Platts adds, “She felt the Girl Scouts was really important in giving girls an understanding of the outdoors and a powerful sense of independence.” Like every other First Lady since 1917, Hoover served as the honorary president of the Girl Scouts and took her role more seriously than most.

Though girls were a major focus, Hoover supported women of all ages during her tenure as First Lady. Gonnella-Platts says, “Like Eleanor Roosevelt after her and Florence Harding before her, she really emphasized the value of why having women in positions of influence is important. For example, she lobbied for having more women in government positions, which challenged the status quo of the time.”

Gonnella-Platts connects learning about Hoover and her fellow First Ladies through the Bush Center exhibit with celebrating the power of women in general. She says, “I hope that people come away with a deeper understanding of the role of First Lady and the affirmation that these stories matter, women’s stories matter, women in positions of influence matter, and there’s far more to this role than people realize.” The exhibit runs through October 1, 2018.

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