Lou Henry Hoover, Stanford class of 1898, and women’s right to vote in 1920

July 21, 2020
Charlotte Kwok Glasser

Woman's  Suffrage Poster

Early in the 20th century, women’s right to vote was the subject of many events at Stanford including this rally at Roble Hall, featured in a poster from circa 1909. There were other events in 1911, the year California voted in favor of women’s suffrage. Josh Schneider, University Archivist, located this Stanford poster on the website of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard in the Alice Park Collection. A long-time resident of Palo Alto, Alice Park was an active suffragist, feminist, pacifist, and environmentalist. There are Alice Park papers in the Stanford University Archives, the Hoover Institution Archives, and the Huntington Library in San Marino. One beneficiary of the 1911 vote was Stanford graduate Lou Henry Hoover, who was able to vote on campus in 1914, six years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

When Lou Henry Hoover graduated from Stanford in 1898, she was well aware of the obstacles she faced as a woman. In a letter to a friend, she expressed her difficulties finding a job in her field of geology, wishing that her A.B. degree stood for “A Boy,” so she could find suitable employment.  Years earlier in high school, she had already clarified her thinking in two essays, one entitled “Universal Suffrage” about the benefits women’s suffrage would provide for society as a whole. In another school paper, she wrote of the advantages of being an “Independent Girl.”

Lou Henry in lab at Stanford University 1895. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.

Nearly three decades later she wrote in an elated mood to her friend, the author and noted suffragist Mary Austin, that she had voted from Stanford: “At Stanford University, California – where I voted!” From the context of the undated letter, she must have been at the Stanford polls in 1914, when women could vote in California state elections. While Lou herself avoided confrontation, Mary Austin reported to her in detail about participating in suffrage demonstrations in New York and London.

In 1918 Lou Henry Hoover was the guest of honor at an event hosted by the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C. Lou Henry’s views were always modulated, and she felt the right to vote was only the first step, and then it had to be used wisely. Dr. Helen Pryor, Stanford expert on physical fitness for women and a personal friend, reported that Lou once commented, “Bad men are elected by good women who stay away from the polls on election day.” Speaking at Bryn Mawr College in 1920, just as the 19th Amendment had been passed by Congress, she made her point: “That we have the vote means nothing. That we use it in the right way means everything. Our political work has only begun when we have the ballot. And that work should be carried out exactly as our college work is – as any good work which we undertake is – it must be thoughtful, idealistic, clean, effective.” One hundred years later, Lou Henry Hoover’s message still resonates.

(Author: Elena S. Danielson, PhD ’75)