Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) was a congresswoman, author, lecturer, world traveler, and the first woman ever to represent the United States as a diplomatic minister to a foreign nation.
Active in many realms, congresswoman and diplomat Ruth Bryan Owen volunteered as a war nurse and also headed up numerous civic and educational organizations. In addition, she was an advocate for world peace, social reform, and women in politics.
Owen was born in 1885 in Jacksonville, Illinois, the eldest daughter of three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan and the former Mary Baird. The family moved to Nebraska when Ruth was two years old. She attended public schools in Nebraska and, after her father's election to Congress in 1890, in Washington, D.C. At an early age, she was tested by the climate of publicity surrounding her father. Ruth often was seen sitting by his side in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was 12 years old during her father's first campaign for the presidency and a student at the Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois, when he was nominated the second time.
Owen entered the University of Nebraska in 1901. Her college career ended early, however, when she left school to marry William Homer Leavitt in October 1903. She served as her father's traveling secretary during his third presidential campaign, in 1908. The following year, she divorced Leavitt, with whom she had two children. In 1910, Ruth Bryan married Reginald Altham Owen, a British military officer assigned to the Royal Engineers. (They also would have two children.) She accompanied him to his post in Jamaica in the British West Indies and, after three years, the family moved to London at the start of World War I.
When her husband, Reginald Owen, was called to the front, Owen served as secretary-treasurer of the American Women's War Relief Fund, an agency that operated a war hospital in Devonshire and five workrooms in London for unemployed women. She also traveled to the Middle East and served as a nurse with a voluntary aid group attached to the British Army during the Egypt-Palestine campaign of 1915-18. Reginald became ill during the war and, in 1919, the family moved to the States, settling in Miami.
Owen became a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, touring the country and delivering speeches titled "New Horizons for America," "Opening Doors," "Building the Peace," and "After the War—What?" She also taught public speaking at the newly opened University of Miami from 1926 to 1928, using her salary to establish scholarships. She was vice chair of the university's Board of Regents from 1925 to 1928. The school's public speaking fraternity took its name, Rho Beta Omicron, from her initials. Meanwhile, her husband's poor health persevered; he died in 1927.
Owen entered Florida politics in 1926, losing the Democratic primary in the state's 4th Congressional District by a mere 770 votes. Two years later she tried again. During the campaign, Owen averaged four speeches a day, nurtured relationships with newspaper editors, and attracted attention by visiting every community in the 18-county district in a Ford coupe that was not yet publicly available. She defeated seven-term incumbent William J. Sears in the primary and followed her father into the U.S. House of Representatives. Her opponent during the general election, Republican William C. Lawson, contested the election results. Lawson contended that Owen was ineligible to hold Congressional office because she had lost her U.S. citizenship when she married an alien and did not recover it under the provisions of the 1922 Cable Act until 1925. Owen successfully defended herself before a House elections committee, while exposing deficiencies in the Cable Act.
Owen entered the 71st Congress on March 4, 1929—the first woman elected to Congress from the Deep South. An enthusiastic advocate of women in politics, Owen was elected in a state that had refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote. In a very short time she captivated Washington completely. In Congress, Owen proposed designating the Florida Everglades a national park and creating a cabinet-level department to oversee the health and welfare of families and children. She also served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and surprised observers—who remembered her father's opposition to tariffs—when she supported the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff raising taxes on imports.
Owen was elected to a second term in 1930 but defeated two years later, losing the primary to James M. Wilcox. During the campaign, Wilcox attacked Owen's position supporting Prohibition, on which she had asked for a state referendum. Then, as a lame duck member of Congress, Owen voted to repeal Prohibition—explaining that her views had not changed, but she was representing her constituency's wishes.
In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed Owen Minister of Denmark—making her the first American woman to represent the country in such a role. "Her three-year mission in Copenhagen was mainly social," John Findling wrote in the Dictionary of American Diplomatic History, "although a minor controversy arose in 1934 when she used a Coast Guard cutter to travel to the United States from Greenland, a trip described as an 'extravagant junket' by congressional opponents."
Owen was forced to resign her post in 1936, after marrying Captain Borge Rohde of the Danish Royal Guards—and a gentleman-in-waiting to King Christian X of Denmark. The marriage made Owen a citizen of both the United States and Denmark, so she could not continue her diplomatic assignment. Upon returning to the States, Owen and Rohde traveled the country in a trailer, campaigning for Roosevelt. In her later years, Owen lived in Ossining, New York, writing and lecturing. At one time, she was the best-paid platform speaker in the country.
Owen was active in several political and world peace organizations and, in 1949, served as an alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. Her involvement in civic, church, and educational movements and organizations was extensive. She served on the Advisory Board of the Federal Reformatory for Women from 1938-54 and was a member of the League of American Penwomen, the Business and Professional Women's Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Women's Overseas League, Delta Gamma, and Chi Delta Phi. She also was a director of the American Platform Guild from its inception and active in the Parent-Teachers' Association and the National Council on Child Welfare. She received honorary degrees from Rollins College in Florida, Woman's College of Florida, Russell Sage College, and Temple University. Owen died in 1954 while in Copenhagen to accept a Distinguished Service Medal from King Frederik IX.
In the book American Women Writers, Dorothea Mosley Thompson pointed out that Owen's writings reflect the changes in her career, locales, and activities. Her book Elements of Public Speaking, published in 1931, emphasized the principles that guided her as a lecturer: Orators are made, not born, she wrote, and clarity and simplicity are crucial elements of an effective speech. Leaves from a Greenland Diary and Caribbean Caravel recount Owen's travels. Denmark Caravan, a children's book, tells of the trailer trip she and her children took through Denmark before she was appointed U.S. minister there. "Denmark Caravan sparkles with Owen's warmth and camaraderie with the people she encountered," Thompson wrote. The Castle in the Silver Wood, published in 1939, is a collection of fairy tales that perhaps reflect Owen's world view. "Many of the stories concern soldiers on their way home from the wars who meet witches or magical objects that test their courage," Thompson wrote. "All the tales have happy endings, and no one in these fairy tales is really wicked."
The book Look Forward, Warrior, published during World War II, outlines Owen's proposal for ensuring world peace—a system heavily based on the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Critics called the book fuzzy, unsubstantial, and unpersuasive—although others said it made a valuable contribution. In any event, "the main outlines of her work have found duplication in the actual documents of the United Nations Charter," according to Thompson. "Like her father, Owen believed that political work is visible proof of concern for … humanity. This sensible, sensitive love for her fellow human beings is … pronounced in Owen's children's books and travel works."
Women in Congress, 1917-1990, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991, pp. 191-192.
Mainiero, Lina, editor, "A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present," in American Women Writers, Vol. 3, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979, reprinted 1982, pp. 324-325.
Burke, W. J., and Will D. Howe, American Authors and Books, 1640 to Present, Crown Publishers, 1972.
Findling, John E., Dictionary of American Diplomatic History, Greenwood Press, 1989, p. 415.