American government official and businesswoman Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995) held pioneering roles as the first head of both the Women's Army Corps (WACs) and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). In her leadership of the WACs, Hobby fought for the equal treatment of female soldiers, insisting that they be subject to the same rules and training as men and receive similar responsibilities. She received a number of honors for her life of public service, including the Distinguished Service Award and the George Catlett Marshall Medal for Public Service.
Oveta Culp Hobby was one of the most prominent women in American government in the 1940s and 1950s. During World War II, she became the original director of the Women's Army Corps, providing guidance in the creation of the first military group for women in the United States. In the 1950s, she was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve as secretary of the newly formed cabinet department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She was only the second woman in history to hold a U.S. cabinet post. After leaving government work, Hobby returned to a successful business career in which she headed a media corporation that included a newspaper and television stations. Throughout her career, Hobby was known for upholding her ideals on social issues while weathering difficulties with composure, dignity, and style. Her policies and example helped to win increased acceptance and respect for other women pursuing careers in the military, government, and business.
Hobby was born into a political family in Killeen, Texas, on January 19, 1905. Her father, Isaac William Culp, was a lawyer and state politician, and her mother, Emma Hoover Culp, was active in the women's suffrage movement. Hobby attended public schools in Killeen and received instruction from private tutors. Her education was also supplemented by her own enthusiastic reading on a variety of topics. The family interest in government and politics was inherited by Hobby, who was drawn to the subject even more after her father was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1919. During his first term in office, Hobby attended a year of classes at the Mary Hardin-Baylor College in Belton, Texas. With her father's reelection in 1921, Hobby moved to Austin with her father, beginning her own law studies by auditing courses at the University of Texas.
Advanced in Newspaper Career
Hobby became an expert on parliamentary procedure, and at the age of 20, began a lengthy term as parliamentarian for the state House of Representatives. She held the post from 1925 to 1931 and returned to the job from 1939 to 1941. She published a book on the subject in 1937 under the title Mr. Chairman. In 1929 she ran for a House seat herself, but was defeated by a Ku Klux Klan-supported candidate who accused her of being a "parliamentarian." This foray into the world of campaigning and elections did not suit Hobby; she never again ran for an elective post. Following her defeat, she changed the focus of her career and took a job in the circulation department of the Houston Post.
The president of the Houston Post was William Pettus Hobby, a friend of Hobby's father and a former governor of Texas. When Hobby met him, she was in her mid-20s and the businessman, in his 50s, had just suffered the death of his first wife. The two began a courtship that resulted in their marriage on February 23, 1931. Hobby continued working at the Post, beginning a syndicated column devoted to issues of parliamentary procedure. Over the coming years she took on increasing responsibility at the paper, advancing from research editor in 1931 to assistant editor in 1936 and executive vice president in 1938. She and her husband eventually purchased the newspaper and Hobby assumed the top management role, simultaneously serving as executive director of the radio station KPRC in Houston. During the 1930s the Hobbys also had two children, William Pettus Hobby Jr. in 1932 and Jessica Oveta Hobby in 1937.
Led Formation of WACs
Hobby returned to government activities in the summer of 1941 when she took an unpaid post as head of the recently formed women's division of the War Department Bureau of Public Relations. With the start of American involvement in World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that December, she was approached by General George C. Marshall to help draw up plans for a women's branch of the Army. Shortly after the creation of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACs) on May 12, 1942, Hobby was named its first director, receiving the military rank of colonel. In 1943, the force received full status in the army and its name was changed to the Women's Army Corps (WACs).
The new women's military force provided several challenges for Hobby. Her first task was to raise the required number of 12, 200 volunteers and to recruit officer candidates. Having gathered an army, she then had to establish a role for it within the context of the male armed forces. Fighting the opinion that women should or could not endure the same regimen as men, Hobby insisted that her soldiers receive the standard Army training and be held to the same military traditions and discipline. She based her policies on research as well as her own opinions; in one instance she traveled to Great Britain with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to study how women there participated in the war. Hobby struggled to win equal treatment for the WACs, defending her women even on the thorny issue of illegitimate pregnancy while in the service. Army officials stated that under such conditions, women should receive a dishonorable discharge and lose all pay and rights. But Hobby countered that such a policy would be an unfair double standard—male soldiers who had affairs resulting in pregnancy did not receive such treatment. The Army conceded her point and allowed pregnant soldiers to leave the forces with an honorable discharge.
Fought Prejudice against Female Soldiers
Not only did Hobby have to labor to win women assignments with Army commanders and resentful enlisted men, she played an important role in creating a positive image for the WACs. Rumors alleging that the ranks of female soldiers were filled with women of loose sexual morals and lesbians threatened to damage public support of the WACs as well as morale in the troops. As the top representative of the WACs, Hobby helped to diminish these ideas by her own example as an intelligent, dignified woman with a distinctive feminine style. Her traditionally elegant fashion sense, in fact, was one of her hallmarks; she frequently appeared at public occasions wearing white gloves and a hat. The billed cap that she wore while head of the WACs became popularly known as the "Hobby cap" and became part of the official WACs uniform.
Under Hobby's leadership, the WACs gained a solid foothold in the military. By the time of her retirement from the force in the summer of 1945, the number of female soldiers had grown to 200, 000. In addition, the WACs had inspired the introduction of women into the other branches of the armed forces, resulting in the creation of the WAVES in the Navy, the SPARs in the Coast Guard, and the Women Marines. For her work to establish the role of women in the army during wartime, Hobby was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
Named Secretary of HEW
Following her departure from the WACs, Hobby returned to Houston and resumed her duties at the Post. By 1952, she had become coeditor and publisher of the newspaper. Although traditionally she had backed Democratic politicians in her home state, during the post-war years she supported the Republican presidential candidacies of both Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. In the 1952 election she assisted in the Democrats for Eisenhower movement. When Eisenhower became president, Hobby's loyalty was rewarded; he appointed her to lead the Federal Security Agency. The agency was responsible for addressing issues that affected the health, education, and economic and social conditions of Americans. In 1953, at the recommendation of the Hoover Commission for the Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, the agency received cabinet status and was reformed as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Hobby remained at the helm of the department, becoming a cabinet secretary on April 11, 1953.
While Hobby distinguished herself a capable and forward-thinking member of the cabinet, her tenure there was filled with frustrations. One of her major proposals, to provide government support for lost-cost health insurance plans, was strongly opposed by both conservative legislators and the American Medical Association, and was defeated. After the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk became available, Hobby's department took on responsibility for insuring equitable distribution of inoculations for children across the nation. The effort became an organizational nightmare, however, as demand for the vaccine surpassed expectations and deliveries were delayed. In addition, one of the first batches of the vaccine was contaminated, resulting in several children contracting polio and a nationwide panic. Hobby worked to reassure the public that vaccinations were safe, but in the midst of the confusion her husband fell into ill health and she resigned her post to tend to him. She once again returned to Houston in July of 1955.
Honored for Public Service
Hobby managed her husband's businesses from their home until William Hobby's death in 1964. His companies were left to Hobby, who kept the businesses competitive by backing the use of the latest technologies at the Post and KPRC. She bought another television company, WLAC-TV of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1975. She also found time to serve on the boards of businesses and nonprofit organizations, including the Bank of Texas and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her philanthropic activities included running the Hobby Foundation. Hobby occasionally was called to return to the service of the government, participating in the presidential commission on Selective Service and the Vietnam Health Education Task Force of HEW. For her lengthy history of public service, Hobby was awarded the George Catlett Marshall Medal for Public Service by the Association of the United States Army in 1978, becoming the first woman so honored. Hobby died at the age of 90 on August 16, 1995.
Further Reading on Oveta Culp Hobby
Adams, Sherman, Firsthand Report: The Story of the Eisenhower Administration, Harper, 1961.
Crawford, Ann Fears, and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale, "Mrs. Secretary: Oveta Culp Hobby," Women in Texas: Their Lives, Their Experiences, Their Accomplishments, Eakin Press, 1982, pp. 249-59.
Eisenhower, Dwight D., Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, Doubleday, 1963.
Holm, Jeanne, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Presidio Press, 1982.
Hurt, Harry III, "The Last of the Great Ladies, " Texas Monthly, October 1978, pp. 143-48, 225-40.
Miles, Rufus E., Jr., The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Praeger, 1974.