Before Eleanor Roosevelt Changed the Office Forever Assessing the Impact of First Ladies in the 1920’s

An In-depth Analysis of Florence Harding, Grace Coolidge, and Lou Hoover

By Cyndy Bittinger, Former Executive Director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and author of Grace Coolidge, Sudden Star. A talk presented at the New England Historical Association’s Spring conference in Bridgewater, MA at Bridgewater State College on April 22, 2006.

Most Americans really do not know much about First Ladies and their contributions in the early part of the 20th century before Eleanor Roosevelt came into office in 1933. They assume that the First Lady had a very traditional role, mainly supporting her husband in their personal life, raising their family, and organizing social functions at the White House. Most would say, they could not have done anything important. Yet first ladies did embark on many projects and their history should not be overlooked by historians looking at contributions by women.

The early First Ladies who set the traditions, Martha Washington and Dolley Madison are recognized as role models for their successors. Each first lady looks back and feels that “the actions of all previous First Ladies continue to frame the nature of the role.”[1] Robert P. Watson in his book analyzing the office of first lady has concluded that each modern first lady has fundamental duties such as the following:

  1. Wife and mother
  2. Public figure and celebrity
  3. Nation’s social hostess
  4. Symbol of the American woman
  5. White House manager and preservationist
  6. Campaigner
  7. Social advocate and champion of social causes
  8. Presidential spokesperson
  9. Presidential and political party booster
  10. Diplomat
  11. Political and presidential partner

Watson believed that the list pertains for “especially those serving since Eleanor Roosevelt,” but I would make a case that most of these duties were taken up by the three that I am focused on today. With the unwritten rule that she should not speak with the press, number 8 presidential spokesperson would not be possible, but most of the other duties were shouldered by these women at different times throughout their terms of office.

A title? In a democracy, do you even have titles? Mrs. Washington was often referred to as Lady Washington, hence the First Lady title.[2] The role was undefined and not in the Constitution, but required staff and an office which certainly began to grow even before Eleanor Roosevelt’s time. Actually Edith Roosevelt, in 1901, was the first to ask for help due to the influx of mail she received.[3]

This brings us to a few questions about the early 20th century first ladies. Did they campaign with their husbands so that they could win the presidency or were the women more at the homefront as public relations stars? Do first ladies lead by example, i.e. by what they do and focus on? They do not really need to have a formal job description; they create the job as they go along. They “exemplify volunteerism and citizenship.”[4] Due to media exposure, Americans can identify first ladies, much more so than other political representatives. The publicity and admiration gathered by these women gives them a potential for power. Early first ladies, though unpaid, were to supervise and pay the staff. Grace Coolidge was the first to have a diplomatic budget, but she and her husband were to pay for food for the White House staff. Wealthy couples assuming the role of president and first lady could handle this all with aplomb, but our democracy often elects an upwardly mobile middle class couple like the Coolidges who do not have the deep pockets often required for entertaining at the highest, most glittering level.

First Ladies often function as the “chief White House preservationist, archivist, or tour guide.”[5] Florence Harding led tours for the public. Grace Coolidge formed a committee of historians, furniture experts, and architects to renovate and restore the White House. Lou Hoover had served on that committee and went even further in treating the White House as a museum.

We now expect first ladies to campaign for their husbands, but Florence Harding was the consummate campaign strategist. She plotted and planned their ascendance to the White House and arranged her desk next to her husbands when she got there. Grace Coolidge traveled with her husband during the 1924 campaign and her successor Lou Hoover is depicted on the cover of a new biography at the back of a train campaigning with her husband. So they did! Florence Harding was a presidential partner in that she campaigned, supported Warren’s career, offered political advice, edited and wrote political speeches, promoted her husband’s policies and even created some of them, and was his most “trusted, closest political ally and confidante.”[6]


Florence Harding:

Let us look at these three First Ladies and their impact on the office. Florence Harding served from 1921 to 1923. Florence was the wife of a U.S. Senator when her husband was nominated to run for the presidency in 1920 and she knew the ways of Washington. She also had run his newspaper and was aware of how to handle publicity. She had the drive to make her husband president even though he was disorganized and even prone to nervous breakdowns.[7] She had crafted his political career with Harry Daugherty and was partly the reason for his success. She was called the “boss” by Daugherty, their campaign manager.[8] She organized suffragist luncheons for her husband and was certain that they would win the nomination even as others were surging ahead at the 1920 convention.[9] She “played a more active role at the party convention than any candidate’s wife had before” and was “the life and central figure” at his campaign headquarters at the Congress Hotel in Chicago.[10] She analyzed the convention for reporters and cultivated delegates.[11] She was the only woman among 500 men working the floor and this was before women got the vote! That was to happen in 1920. When her husband was nominated, he gleefully exclaimed, “Whatever of honor has come to me this day, I owe to Florence.”[12]

The 1920 campaign was from the front porch of their home in Marion, Ohio and Mrs. Harding was on the porch and very effective at gaining support. The new women voters liked her as did the working press. “She loved the crowds, the full days, the excitement, the speeches, and the parades.”[13] From July 31 to September, over 600,000 persons met the couple, a “picture of American respectability.”[14] When a false “Negro-blood story” surfaced, Florence was the one to stare down Harry Daugherty, the campaign manager, and refuse to make any statement to dignify the remarks.[15] She was also a good barometer of the campaign since she saw the crowds and their enthusiasm. She knew that they would win “and win big.”[16] Harding won by the “largest popular majority yet recorded.(60.2 percent)”[17]

Once in the White House, Florence, nicknamed the Duchess, put her political skills to work. “She was a real asset to Harding.”[18] She organized entertainment on an almost nightly basis and made sure the public was welcome at the White House. Since 1917 and the declaration of war, the gates had been shut to the White House grounds. Now the gates were open and the blinds pulled up. “It’s their White House, let them look in if they want to,” she called out to the frightened White House staff.[19] She also wanted a cheerier White House with new colors in the rooms and flowers both inside and out. Holiday celebrations were returned and teas resumed.

It was difficult to be first lady when the president, Harding, did not like his job and felt inadequate at it.[20] She had to shore him up and find ways to inspire him. Since she liked power, she could hardly understand his conscientious approach and discouragement at prospects of overwhelming tasks. His presidency was their “joint venture” and he was not able to succeed at it.[21] She kept track of major decisions and provided the backbone for both of them.

With the modern media of the day, creators of newspapers and newsreels craved news of the presidential couple. After all they represented the country and entertained royalty and other important people. They were newsworthy and they could sell newspapers! Thus, first ladies could set fashion or at least influence it by what they wore. Mrs. Harding “was obsessed about her appearance, favoring beads, sparkles and spangles, flashing when she turned.”[22] Her color was “delphinium-inspired blue-violet” which came to be known as “Duchess Blue.”[23] On her neck she sported a black velvet neckband with a diamond sunburst at the center. She was representative of the roaring twenties in that she enjoyed music, dancing, entertaining, and a focus on the arts. All this was photographed for the masses to enjoy vicariously as well.

As the Hardings prepared for a second term, Florence decided that Calvin Coolidge would be replaced on the ticket for the 1924 campaign. After reading her papers from the Ohio Historical Society, I found a letter from Warren’s cousin suggesting, “From the present viewpoint Governor Lowden would be more helpful than anyone whose name has been mentioned.” Florence, the political pro, knew that a Midwesterner with support from farmers would be a better choice. She also planned an extensive trip out West to promote her husband. “Out West they don’t know they have a President, and I am anxious to have them see Mr. Harding, which is one of the reasons for our trip.”[24]

Florence Harding was also in charge of her husband’s health and some of Harding’s appointments were made in deference to his wife. Dr. Sawyer, personal physician of Mrs. Harding, was made a “brigadier general in the Medical Reserve Corps of the army.”[25] Dr. Sawyer had prevented surgery on Florence when her hydronephritis returned and his judgment prevailed and she had lived.[26] She had rock solid faith in his decisions.

In preparation for the trip to Alaska in 1923, Florence was worried about her husband’s pallor and energy level so she instructed his doctors, General Sawyer and Captain Boone to “be as close to the President’s room as possible.”[27] Historians are still arguing about what happened in San Francisco, but Florence Harding’s plan to keep her husband alive with two physicians providing different remedies may have only helped him along to his greater reward.[28]

After Warren Harding died, his widow burned many of his papers. This brings us to consider, who does have the right to these papers? Are they personal and belonging to the first family or do they belong to the nation? I realize that personal letters between the couples are in their control, but how widely did Florence Harding range in her destruction of Warren Harding’s primary records? She had ordered the West Wing to give her all papers signed by her husband, crated them up and took them to a friend’s estate and then on to hometown Marion, Ohio.[29]

Grace Coolidge:

Meanwhile, the second lady had become the first lady of the land on August 3, 1923. Grace Coolidge had observed First Lady Florence Harding and had befriended the wives of senators, as the head of the Senate Ladies Club, but was really rather new to Washington with its social strata and political competition. It is amazing to think that this middle class, college educated woman from Burlington, Vermont had reached the apex of the country’s power without ever striving for this success. After all, she had raised their boys in western Massachusetts while her husband had commuted into Boston for the week during those important years of 1906-1920. She had not been part of the political equation. However, Coolidge’s mentor, Frank Waterman Stearns, had observed her star power and was continually urging Calvin to appear with his wife during his governorship and the vice presidential years. Now, he was sure her personality would be a major plus to this administration. With Calvin’s reticience to indulge in small talk, Grace’s charm and cultural interests would go a long way to appeasing the Washington establishment and to capturing the interest of the general public as well. She was to be a “sudden star.”

Grace Coolidge continued the traditional roles of a first lady and kept the modern parts that worked in partnership with her very traditional husband. Political scientist Robert Watson wrote that Grace “was prevented from participating in any part of her husband’s presidency.”[30] I disagree. She was not involved in public policy, but did entertain as a head of state and did focus attention on cultural life with her musical offerings. She did work to restore period piece furniture to the White House and to renovate the third floor with an appropriation from Congress. She was the first to treat the building as a museum. She also continued on with advocacy in her role as first lady. She advocated for those with disabilities and raised considerable funds for the Clarke School for the Deaf, where she had taught before marriage. Yet she did not give interviews to the press or comment on issues of the day. She was the perfect political spouse since she looked lovely, engaged the public and official Washington yet did not meddle in presidential politics!

Having a functioning harmonious family is important to the president. Grace Coolidge pleased her husband by wearing the gowns he selected and she watched over their boys as closely as she could considering they were two hours away at a preparatory school. Letters from the boys to their mother show a strong affection.

However, the tragedy of the younger son cast a pall over the family and only Grace’s resilience kept the family together after the death of Calvin Jr. from septicemia, blood poisoning. The public was very involved in this event since the newspapers carried the story daily in the papers of July, 1924. Ten thousand telephone calls were made to the White House and fourteen thousand cards were mailed to the public who wrote sympathetic telegrams, letters, cards and sent floral pieces. No death ever generated such expression of sympathy up until this time.[31] Grace Coolidge’s religious faith helped her cope and she remained by the side of her husband to help him lift this burden and continue into his own term since afterall he was elected in his own right in 1924! Historians assessing his victory contributed much credit to his wife since “voters respected the purity of his private life, his simplicity, his freedom from sham and pretense” as Coolidge’s recipe for success.[32] Biographer William Allen White gave the famous assessment of the 1924 victory: “One flag, one country, one conscience, one wife, and never more than three words will do him all his life.”[33] This is important to remember since the Teapot dome scandals of the Harding administration could have brought major losses for the Republican Party in 1924. The press praised the first lady and credited her personality as “her strongest point” as she brought to the White House a “spontaneous atmosphere, a big joyousness which it had not known since the day President Cleveland took his bride there as the First Lady of the Land.”[34] The couple was very popular in the country throughout the second term and voluntary retirement.

Since the presidential couple did not travel outside the country due to the lack of a Constitutional succession provision, the role of diplomat was limited. However, Grace Coolidge did travel to Cuba in 1928 with her husband as a break with this tradition and was very much a presence by his side.[35]

Lou Hoover:

When Calvin Coolidge decided not to run again in 1928 (there was no two term limit then), Herbert Hoover was anxious to fulfill his national potential by running for president. Lou Hoover knew she was “breaking precedent” when she decided to campaign for her husband. She mainly spoke in generalities to women’s groups and over the radio. “She also gave a few interviews under controlled situations” and wanted to edit whatever was actually ever written.[36]

Before the inauguration, president-elect Herbert Hoover wanted to visit ten Latin American republics and set sail with his wife on the battleship Maryland.[37] In contrast to Grace Coolidge, Lou had traveled around the world by steamer four or five times.[38]

Lou Hoover threw herself into the traditional role of first lady with scheduled musical groups and teas for the ladies of the Supreme Court. She also wanted a series of teas for the wives of congressmen and senators. Since Chicago elected an African-American congressman, his wife should be invited to the White House. This was arranged quietly, but the intolerant editors of some Southern newspaper editorials criticized the White House as secretly “promoting racial equality” and three southern legislatures condemned Mrs. Hoover.[39] “She was deeply hurt.”[40] Her husband invited other African Americans to the White House but did not respond directly. So this was a step forward, but did not really become a positive story.

As a modern woman, Lou Hoover abandoned the custom of leaving visiting cards at homes in Washington, an outmoded social communication. She also askewed high society preferring “interesting people from all walks of life.”[41] She focused the music offerings on American artists as a way to encourage new artists not the usual Europeans that past first ladies had favored.

Continuing the treatment of the White House as a museum as Grace Coolidge had done, Lou Hoover sought pieces that were used in the White House. They should be found and brought back into use. Lou had served on Grace’s committee which had looked for 18th and 19th century antique reproductions for the building. Mrs. Hoover began a system of cataloguing what was in the building for future generations. She and her staff did research in other buildings and created a “White House Book” for preservation of the Executive Mansion in future years. Research uncovered French furniture of James Monroe’s in Fredericksburg, Virginia and these pieces were reproduced so that the Rose Parlor was now the Monroe Room.[42] Mrs. Hoover thought that the accuracy of this room was an important contribution to the White House as a museum.[43] She also created a Lincoln bedroom and added their own personal collection of Lincoln memorabilia.[44]

Lou Hoover was “an excellent manager, an expert organizer of people.”[45] Grace Coolidge had two secretaries to handle the growing correspondence; Lou Hoover needed three. Despite the Depression, the White House was run with “optimism and hope” and no budget cut backs were instituted.[46]

The Hoovers embarked on private projects that they thought were important but did not seek national publicity. They sought funds and had built a Meeting House for the Quakers in Washington.[47] They also desired a presidential retreat and founded Camp Rapidan in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.[48] Building this with their own funds and eventually giving it to the nation, Lou planned out the buildings and grounds with her “personal stamp.”[49] She chose “logs and rustic boards, rock chimneys and split-shingle roofs.”[50] Lou, when informed that the local people had no school or church, set out to build a schoolhouse. When news of this project was released, Girl Scout troops around the country contributed books and classroom equipment. The President’s Mountain School opened on February 24, 1930.[51] Women’s clubs sent food for a hot lunch program and the White House physician began a health monitoring project.[52]

As a first lady presiding during the depression, letters requesting “direct financial assistance” were addressed to Mrs. Lou Hoover. She felt that she had to do something and her work on the behalf of the Food Administration, American Red Cross Canteen Escort Service, and the Girl Scouts made “her highly visible in the press where she was pictured as a sympathetic and caring person.” [53] Since there was no federal system at this time, she recruited her own “personal network of field investigators” to help.[54] She relied on local agencies to make a difference. However, in a radio broadcast from Camp Rapidan on June 22, 1929, she asked the 4-H Clubs to be “of service in their communities” and at this point not “even her husband had spoken to a national audience at such length.”[55] She followed this in 1931 with a radio address publicizing the work of the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment. She encouraged the Girl Scouts to provide relief and assistance. Her final radio address as First Lady was made on November 27, 1932 where she urged women to volunteer and help with the crisis. She and her husband were for voluntarism rather than direct federal assistance, but future administrations would decide differently. Once again, with the Bonus army march on Washington for veterans benefits, Lou sent them “trays of sandwiches and coffee”, but the confrontations looked like mob rule and the Army used violent means to disperse them.[56] Lou had quietly tried to assist, but not telling the American people about this was not going to be helpful in a political campaign. “She did not succeed nearly so well with the general public because average Americans did not understand her social and public activism, because the depression intervened, and because she never fully used the media to her advantage.”[57] She did not use the press to “convince the American people that they should embrace a new range of activism for presidential spouses.”[58] Ironically, the dynamic duo who worked together so well before the White House years, failed to connect during the economic downturn outside their gates. Lou “developed her responses to the depression in almost complete isolation from her husband.”[59]

In 1932, she did speak to some Republican women’s groups and helped plan campaign strategy and voter outreach efforts. Yet she did not want the public to know this; she still wanted to be a “traditional” first lady.[60] In November they made a six day whistle stop campaign. Standing by her husband as the nation settled into a Depression must have been painful. Herbert Hoover was booed in Detroit on the campaign trail.[61] After the loss, the transition to the Roosevelts did not go well. As the Hoovers left the capital on inauguration day for Franklin D. Roosevelt, they knew the cheering was not for them.[62]

With two books in 2003 and 2004 extolling Lou Hoover as an activist and prototype, one would think that Blanche Wiesen Cook might need to revisit her book, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1933-1938, published in 1999 where she writes that “Unlike her predecessors, ER claimed her right to a public role” and “her immediate predecessor, Lou Henry Hoover, chose silence; Grace Goodhue Coolidge’s husband imposed it.”[63]

Eleanor Roosevelt changed the office of first lady forever. She gave press conferences, 320 in her first year, she traveled widely and spoke everywhere. She “deluged her husband with reports and requests.”[64] She had her own newspaper column and stated positions on human rights way ahead of her time. Her good works are heralded in book after book and rightly so. However, let us remember the women before her in the office of first lady. After all, “being first lady requires a women to act…as a mixture of queen, club woman, and starlet.”[65]

[1] Robert P. Watson, ed. American First Ladies ( Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, 2002), “Introduction” p. 7.
[2] Robert P. Watson,ed. Foreword by Frances H. Glendening, American First Ladies, xiii
[3] Ibid, 7.
[4] Ibid,xviii.
[5] Ibid, “Introduction” by Robert P. Watson, American First Ladies, 4.
[6] Ibid, 6.
[7] Ibid, “Florence Harding” by James McCallops, American First Ladies, 205.
[8] Carl S. Anthony, Florence Harding, the First Lady, the Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President, (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1998), 176.
[9] Ibid, 187.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid, 190.
[12] Ibid, 198.
[13] Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era, Warren G. Harding and His Administration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1969),49.
[14] Ibid,52.
[15] Ibid,64.
[16] Ibid,65.
[17] Ibid,66.
[18] Eugene P. Trani and David L. Wilson, The Presidency of Warren G. Harding (Lawrence, KS:The Regents Press of Kansas,1977),36.
[19] Murray, The Harding Era, Warren G. Harding and His Administration,113.
[20] Ibid, 418.
[21] Ibid, 420
[22] Anthony, 272.
[23] Ibid,273.
[24] Aunt Nellie from Florence Harding, February 13, 1923, Florence Harding Papers, Ohio Historical Society.
[25] Ibid,301.
[26] Ibid, 418-419.
[27] Robert K. Murray, The Harding Era, Warren G. Harding and His Administration, 440
[28] Anthony, 449-474.
[29] Ibid, 489.
[30] Watson, The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady, 55.
[31] The Mercersburg Academy Alumni Quarterly, 57 and Cynthia D. Bittinger, Grace Coolidge, Sudden Star (New York: Nova History Publications, Inc., 2005) 68.
[32] Claude M. Fuess, The Man from Vermont, Calvin Coolidge (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1935),356.
[33] Ishbel Ross, Grace Coolidge and Her Era The Story of a President’s Wife. (Rutland, Vermont: Academy Books, 1962),139.
[34] Jozy Dell Hall, ed., White House Days (Extracts from the Washington Post, August 3, 1923 to March 5, 1929) (Washington: January, 1931) privately printed for the Grace Coolidge, 71.
[36] Dale C. Mayer, Lou Henry Hoover: a Prototype for First Ladies (New York: Nova History Publications, 2003), 240.
[37] Ibid, 248.
[38] Ibid,333.
[39] Ibid, 247.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid, 251.
[42] Ibid., 255.
[43] William Seale, The President’s House (Washington: White House Historical Association, 1986), 912.
[44] Ibid,887.
[45] Ibid..
[46] Ibid., 901.
[47] Mayer., 256.
[48] Ibid., 266.
[49] Ibid., 268.
[50] Seale, 907.
[51] Mayer, 273.
[52] Ibid,275.
[53] Ibid., 279.
[54] Ibid., 280.
[55] Ibid., 281.
[56] Ibid., 293.
[57] Nancy Beck Young, Lou Henry Hoover: Activist First Lady (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 81.
[58] Ibid,164.
[59] Ibid, 93.
[60] Ibid., 155.
[61] Seale, 913.
[62] Ibid., 914.
[63] Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume Two, 1933-1938 (New York: Viking, 1999), 12, 18.
[64] Watson, American First Ladies, “Eleanor Roosevelt” by Patricia Foltz Warren, 231.
[65] Watson quoting Lewis L. Gould, The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady, 149.

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