Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Mary L. Hough

Second Committee Member

Howard Segal

Third Committee Member

Nathan Godfried


This dissertation analyzes the evolution of the Office of the First Lady and the sources of women’s power in the twentieth century by focusing on two First Ladies, Lou Henry Hoover and Elizabeth Bloomer Ford. In order to accomplish this goal, this work primarily grounds itself in the altering women’s movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Through the application of a gendered analysis and a reading of the tactics and rhetoric of the various United States women’s movements, this dissertation seeks a broad understanding of the precarious place of the First Lady in the American political system. A First Lady is a prime example of how women around the country participate in political discord and effect change even without direct representation. The position of the First Lady is undefined in the American political system, and yet some women participate, directly or indirectly, in policy and representative politics while First Lady. From where does her authority and influence come? This work argues that she pulls on sources of power influence that also have roots in the women’s movements. Although the two women profiled herein did not directly associate with the women’s movement of their era (Hoover at the end of the first wave women’s movement, Ford at the beginning of the second wave women’s movement) they utilized the basic foundational characteristics of the movement: women’s collective organizing, gendered argumentation, and a focus on women’s lives as important to society. These women translated forms of activism and networking strategies of the women’s movements of their time in order to accomplish various goals in the White House. Hoover worked through relief agencies to alleviate the impact of the Great Depression on Americans; Ford’s activism opened the door for people to talk about health and social issues. Their individual time as First Lady thus reflect both the changing role of women in America and the growth of an office that is in legal limbo and articulated by historians as stagnant.