In the late 1930s Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of former President Herbert Hoover, responded to an inquiry from a woman regarding women’s entrance into male-dominated jobs. “I believe that there is a future in anything that one is vitally interested in,” Mrs. Hoover advised. “It is up to the girl to find the niche in which she thinks there would be the most congenial work, and make her own way into it.” Hoover’s support for working women might seem surprising. During the depression era, social pressures on women to give up their jobs for the benefit of men were strong. According to many feminist scholars, such patriarchal social assumptions were reinforced by a patriarchal state. As theorist Frances Fox Piven asserts, most feminist scholarship concerning women and the state is of the opinion that the state “exercises social control over women, supplanting the eroding patriarchal relations of the family with a patriarchal relationship with the state.” Such scholarship generally describes women’s relationship to the state as a type of forced dependence.
More recently, however, feminist scholars are beginning to nuance their analyses of the state. Fox Piven, for example, argues that at times the state has been an ally to women, and that women have actually gained power through their relationship with the state. Building on Fox Piven’s work, this paper discusses how Lou and Herbert Hoover actually used the state to assist women in their fight for equality in the work force. Based upon my research at the Herbert Hoover Library I argue that the state, in this case the Hoover Administration, tried to help working women overcome the patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes that a woman’s place was in the home. But even with such support from the White House, women did not gain significant ground in the public sphere because of the pervasive social attitudes ascribing men with breadwinning and women with homemaking that were part of the national consciousness during the 1920s and 1930s.
Julia Dickinson, ’97
Sponsor: Laurie Pintar