Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995)
First Director of Women’s Army Corps
Oveta Culp was born in Killeen, Texas to parents from whom she learned the tradition of service to one’s country and one’s community. Her father was a lawyer and a state legislator, and while Culp attended college and South Texas School of Law, she excelled largely because she absorbed so much from stopping in at her father’s law office where she often read from his law books. When she was 14, her father let her miss school so she could accompany him to Austin to observe the legislature in session. By the age of 20, she was so knowledgeable about the workings of the Texas House of Representatives, that the Speaker of the House asked her to serve as parliamentarian.
Over the next few years she worked for several legislative committees including the State Banking Commission. She also became active in a Houston mayoral campaign. When her candidate was elected, he appointed her as city attorney. At age 25, she ran for state legislature to represent Houston but lost in the election. Throughout this time, she continued to return to serve as parliamentarian when the Texas House of Representatives was in session.
In 1931 she married William P. Hobby, a former governor of Texas who was publisher of the Houston Post. Oveta began working at the newspaper as a research editor. On occasion she also traveled to Washington to meet with the FCC on behalf of the newspaper. On one of these visits—with war looking more and more certain–General David Searles contacted her. The government was hearing from women throughout the country who wanted to know what they could do to help. Searles wanted Oveta Hobby to figure this out by taking charge of what was referred to as the “Women’s Interest Section” of the War Department.
With encouragement from her husband to “answer her country’s call,” Oveta took the job and began to study what might be effective. Then on December 7, 1941Pearl Harbor was attacked, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson and General George C. Marshall told her to get to work figuring out how women could help the regular army. She was soon appointed to be director of a newly created unit, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women’s Army Corps).
Oveta Hobby basically created what became a vital arm of the military and a big step forward for women who had been barred most military jobs other than nursing. Originally, it was hoped that women could relieve the men of 54 of the jobs that needed to be done; Hobby soon identified 239 jobs that could be assigned to women. Hobby worked tirelessly on this effort; she eventually achieved the rank of colonel and received the Distinguished Service Medal for her efforts.
After the war, she supported Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower though she was a Democrat. When he was elected, he appointed her as chairman of the Federal Security Agency, then in charge of health and education programs. Eisenhower soon elevated the agency to be part of his cabinet, and Hobby became first secretary of what was to be the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services). (She was the second woman to hold a cabinet-level position; Frances Perkins was first, serving secretary of labor under FDR.) One of the most important decisions she made during this time was to approve Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine—a vital decision that at the time was not at all clear cut as to rewards vs. benefits. She also advocated voluntary, nonprofit insurance plans to extend healthcare to the poor.
In 1955, her husband was quite ill, and Hobby resigned from her post and went back to Texas to be near him. She also worked as editor and president of the newspaper. After her husband died, she continued at the paper and worked on many corporate boards; her children have been active in national causes and Texas politics.