Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde

Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde (1885-1954) was the first congresswoman from the South and the first woman to serve on a major congressional committee. In addition to championing women's issues in Congress, she was later active in international affairs, being the first American woman to hold a major diplomatic post.

Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde was born October 2, 1885, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Her father was William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for president. She grew up in a political atmosphere and learned politics and public speaking from her father, but she was deeply impressed by her mother, Mary Baird Bryan, a brilliant, college-educated woman who studied law and was admitted to the Nebraska bar in 1888. Ruth once declared that she wished to emulate her mother's mind and character. Ruth was five when her father was first elected to Congress, and she occasionally sat beside him on the House floor when he took part in congressional debates. The whole family travelled with him when he ran for president in 1896, and Ruth served as his secretary in his third run for the presidency in 1908.

She attended Monticello Female Academy in Godfrey, Illinois (1899-1901), before going to the University of Nebraska. She left college to marry a young artist, William Homer Leavitt, in October 1903; and they had two children before the unhappy marriage was dissolved in 1909. After the divorce Ruth Bryan went to Germany to study voice, where she met and married Reginald Altham Owen, a British officer in the Royal Engineers, in 1910. After three years in Jamaica the couple returned to England, where Ruth Owen gave birth to her third child in 1913. During World War I, while her husband campaigned in Palestine and Gallipoli, she worked for 15 months with Lou Henry Hoover in London as secretary-treasurer of the American Woman's War Relief Fund. She also studied nursing and in 1915 was posted to Cairo as an operating room nurse with the British Volunteer Aid Detachment.

Major Owen contracted a degenerative kidney disease in Gallipoli which ruined his health, so after the war the family returned to Florida, where Ruth Owen gave birth to her fourth child in 1920. Major Owen's failing health placed the responsibility for supporting the family upon his wife; therefore, she began lecturing on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits, becoming the highest paid woman lecturer on the circuit. She soon became a leader in various civic, cultural, educational, and patriotic organizations. In 1925 she was named vice-chairman of the board of regents of the newly established University of Miami and taught public speaking for the university extension service in 1927-1928.

In 1926 she entered the Democratic congressional primary; despite the complete opposition of the Democratic organization and the anti-suffrage prejudice of Florida, she lost by only 779 votes. Her husband died in December 1927. With the encouragement and help of her mother, she ran for Congress again in 1928. After an energetic campaign reminiscent of her father's campaigns, Owen won the Democratic primary and then swamped her Republican opponent by over 30,000 votes in the general election, becoming the first congresswoman from the South.

Her greatest legislative contributions derived from the controversy surrounding her being seated in Congress. Her defeated opponent challenged her right to the seat on the grounds that she had not been a citizen of the United States for seven years prior to her election, as required by the Constitution. Under a 1907 law, she had lost her American citizenship by marrying an alien, and she had not regained it until 1925 under the provisions of the 1922 Cable Act, an "independent citizenship" law demanded by the women's rights movement. The House Committee on Elections heard the challenge, and Ruth Owen presented her own case. She condemned the 1907 law as unfair in that it penalized only women for marrying aliens. No American man lost his citizenship by marrying a foreigner. In addition, she showed that the procedural flaws in the Cable Act itself had made it difficult for her, a woman supporting four children and a dying husband, to go through the process of repatriation. The Committee on Elections unanimously accepted her, and the entire House seated her without discussion or dissent. Her case focused attention on the defects of the Cable Act and led to corrective amendments which produced "independent citizenship" for women. She was reelected without opposition in 1930.

In 1929 she was appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, making her the first woman to serve on a major congressional committee. In Congress she championed feminist issues, including the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Home and Child, the appointment of a woman to a cabinet office, and appropriations to send delegates to international conferences on health and child welfare. She came to grief over the prohibition issue in the 72nd Congress (1931-1933). She always voted "dry" on the question during the session, but the forces of repeal defeated her in the Democratic primary in 1932. In the lame-duck session that followed she accepted the wishes of her district and voted to repeal the prohibition amendment.

In 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her to be envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Denmark, making her the first American woman to hold a major diplomatic post. Three years later she married Captain Borge Rohde of the Danish Royal Guards, which automatically made her a Danish citizen. This champion of independent citizenship found herself unable to continue in her diplomatic capacity because she now possessed dual citizenship. So she resigned and, with her husband and family, Ruth Rohde returned to live in the United States. She continued to lecture and write and in 1939 became a visiting professor at Monticello College.

In 1945 Roosevelt named her special assistant to the State Department to aid in the drafting of the United Nations Charter, and in 1949 President Harry Truman appointed her alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1954 she travelled to Denmark to accept the Order of Merit from King Frederick IX for her contributions to Danish-American friendship. While in Copenhagen, on July 26, 1954, Ruth Rohde died of a heart attack and was buried there.

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Further Reading on Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde

A lively biographical sketch of Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde is found in Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (1973). Her early life is described in a memoir by her parents, Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan: By Himself and His Wife Mary Baird Bryan (1925). The Cable Act and the citizenship question are discussed in J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s (1973). Also see Paolo Coletta, William Jennings Bryan. I. Political Evangelist, 1860-1908 (1964); Notable American Women: The Modern Period (1980); Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Five: 1951-1955 (1977), and an obituary in the New York Times, July 27, 1954.