Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of “The Peerless Leader,” three–time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, inherited her father’s political gifts as a communicator and, like him, pursued a reform agenda in the House of Representatives. Known for her strenuous campaign efforts, oratory, and devotion to constituent services, Representative Owen became the first woman to serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ruth Bryan was born on October 2, 1885, in Jacksonville, Illinois. The family moved in response to her father’s rising political fortunes—first, upon his election to the Nebraska legislature, to Lincoln when Ruth Bryan was two years old. At age five, she moved to Washington, when her father was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her mother, Mary E. Baird, was a lawyer who had been admitted to the bar and, as Owen recalled years later, “I would like to emulate her. She is a thoroughly feminine woman with the mind of a thoroughly masculine man.”1 Ruth also doted on her father, often accompanying him on the House Floor. During the ferocious tariff debates of the 1890s, Ruth’s frequent appearances led Members to name her “the sweetheart of the House.”2
Ruth Bryan attended public schools in Washington, D.C., and the Monticello Female Academy in Godfrey, Illinois. She entered the University of Nebraska in 1901 and took two years of classes before marrying the artist William Homer Leavitt in 1903. They had two children, Ruth and John. In 1908, she served as her father’s traveling secretary during his third presidential campaign. Despite her fundamentalist father’s objections, she divorced Leavitt and, in 1910, married Reginald A. Owen, an officer of the Royal British Engineers. The couple had two more children, Reginald and Helen. The family lived at Reginald Owen’s numerous overseas duty posts. In Cairo in 1915, Ruth Owen joined the British Volunteer Aid Detachment as a nurse to care for convalescent soldiers. Owen also established a volunteer entertainment troupe, the “Optimists,” that performed at military hospitals in the Middle East.3 When her husband’s health failed in 1919, she moved the family to Miami, Florida, to be near her parents. For the next 10 years, she spoke on a professional lecture circuit and served as a faculty member and on the board of regents at the University of Miami.
A year after her father’s death in 1925, Ruth Bryan Owen decided to run for the House of Representatives in a district along Florida’s Atlantic coast. In a state that refused to ratify the 19th Amendment, she narrowly lost in the Democratic primary to six–term incumbent William J. Sears by 800 votes. When Owen was widowed the next year, she had apprehensions about her role in politics: that “there was not the friendliest feeling toward any woman taking her place in political life.”4 Yet, Owen did not leave the political arena; she ran again for the same seat in 1928. In an effort to “meet the voters” before the primary election, she reached out to dozens of newspaper editors with promotional materials.5 Her relief work after a devastating hurricane ripped through Miami in 1927 also drew attention to the determined candidate. Owen’s efforts were not in vain, and she triumphed over Sears in the 1928 Democratic primary by more than 14,000 votes.
In the 1926 and 1928 elections, Owen adopted the high–energy campaigning tactics, complete with spirited oratory, which once distinguished her father’s campaigns. She was determined to reach as many citizens as possible in the district, then one of the largest geographic districts in the country, stretching more than 500 miles along the Atlantic seaboard from Jacksonville to Key West. She cruised the coastline in a green Ford coupe dubbed “The Spirit of Florida,” logging more than 10,000 miles to give 500 stump speeches. Despite her growing popularity, Owen angered Democratic Party leaders for refusing to endorse the presidential nominee, Al Smith, or to appear with him during his campaign stops in Florida. She understood that her connection to the Catholic Smith would be unpopular in the then violently anti–Catholic state. Her attention to constituents’ opinions served her well, and Owen easily defeated Republican William C. Lawson with 65 percent of the vote—while the Republican presidential candidate, Herbert Hoover, scooped up Florida’s electors with a 17 percent margin of victory.6 Upon victory, Owen referred humorously to her father’s three unsuccessful bids for President: “There! I am the first Bryan who ran for anything and got it!”7
The campaign fight, however, was not over for Owen. Lawson contested the election, charging that Owen had lost her American citizenship upon her marriage to an Englishman and then living outside the United States. He claimed that she was ineligible for election to Congress because she had not recovered her citizenship under the provisions of the 1922 Cable Act, which allowed women married to foreign men to petition for repatriation upon their return to the United States, until 1925. This did not allow for the seven years’ citizenship required by the Constitution to run for U.S. Representative. Unfazed, Owen put her oratorical skills to work. She offered a persuasive and successful defense of her eligibility before the House Elections Committee, exposing the deficiencies of the Cable Act and leading to an eventual amendment to the law. Her audience convinced, she was sworn in at the start of the 71st Congress (1929–1931) on March 4, 1929. Owen won the Democratic nomination and ran unopposed in the 1930 general election.
Owen swiftly established herself as fiercely loyal to the needs of her Florida constituents. She quickly secured more than $4 million in federal funding to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly pest, which threatened Florida’s citrus crop. After a tour of the southern areas of her district, she introduced legislation to set aside thousands of acres of the Everglades as a national park. The measure failed but provided the basis for a later successful designation of the area. Owen also used her position in Congress to argue for federal aid for flood control on Florida’s Okeechobee River. During her tenure, she supported the establishment of a new Coast Guard Station and a U. S. District Court in eastern Florida. In perhaps the most controversial move of her time in Congress, Owen voted in favor of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff, which raised duties on imports in May 1929. Considering her father’s staunch opposition to tariffs, many political observers expressed shock. Owen insisted she was only following the wishes of the pro–industrialist vote in her district. “To vote ‘No’ when I know without a doubt that my constituents want me to say ‘Yes,’” she said, “would be a form of political treason.”8
The early success of the fruit fly measure was testament to the novel manner in which Owen kept in touch with her constituents in Florida. In a time before congressional Members maintained district offices, Owen maintained a “resident secretary,” Walter S. Buckingham, who remained in Florida and kept her abreast of local events. Buckingham also passed out questionnaires to constituents, polling their wants and needs.9 Although Owen also developed an intricate plan to visit all 18 counties in her massive district on congressional breaks, she was determined to bring some of her constituents to the nation’s capital.10 She established an annual program (using some of her own money) to bring high school boys and girls from her district to Washington, D.C., for training as future leaders.
Legislation in favor of children and family was a priority in Owen’s agenda. She criticized the labyrinthine process of securing help for indigent families in her district. As a remedy, she proposed the creation of a Cabinet–level department to oversee the health and welfare of families and children, a “Department of Home and Child.” Owen used her position on the Foreign Affairs Committee—in December 1929 she became the first woman to win a seat on that influential body—to secure funding to send U.S. delegations to international conferences on health and child welfare.11 With her well–traveled background, Owen advocated American attendance at international conferences, including the Geneva Disarmament Conference in February 1932.12 Owen pressed U.S. officials to abide by the resolutions coming out of the 1930 Hague Conference on the Codification of International Law, a conference seeking to enumerate international laws regarding gender, marriage, and nationality, an issue Owen experienced firsthand.13
Like her father, Owen maintained a “dry” position, supporting Prohibition and the 18th Amendment. As temperance became more unpopular, particularly among her Florida constituents, Owen’s support slipped. She lost the 1932 Democratic nomination to James M. Wilcox, who went on to lose to Sears in the general election. Owen lamented after the election, “I did not turn ‘wet’ fast enough to suit my constituents.”14 She wished to resign, rather than remain a “lame duck,” during the second session of the 72nd Congress (1931–1933), but House Speaker John N. Garner of Texas convinced her to remain until the end of the Congress. Ever true to the wishes of her constituents, Owen voted in favor of repealing the 18th Amendment, despite her personal convictions. In the waning days of the 72nd Congress, she issued a lament fitting to her clever sense of humor. Owen’s colleague, Congresswoman Florence Kahn, a Republican from California, read on the House Floor a comic poem Owen had written, entitled, “The Last Will and Testament of a Lame Duck.”15
Owen’s political career did not end after she left Congress. In April 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Owen, a longtime family friend, as Minister to Denmark—making her the first American woman to head a diplomatic legation. Ironically, one of her first duties was to ease Danish concerns about the high duties created by the Smoot–Hawley Tariff, one of Owen’s controversial votes. On July 11, 1936, Owen married Captain Borge Rohde of the Danish Royal Guards. Because her marriage meant that she was a citizen of both Denmark and the United States, she had to resign her diplomatic post, but Owen spent the fall of 1936 campaigning for Roosevelt’s re–election. From 1938 to 1954, she served on the Advisory Board of the Federal Reformatory for Women. In 1949, President Harry Truman appointed her as an alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Owen lived in Ossining, New York, lecturing and publishing several well–received books on Scandinavia. She died in Copenhagen on July 26, 1954, during a trip to accept the Danish Order of Merit from King Frederick IX recognizing her contributions to American–Danish relations.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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