Bryan Owen: Florida's First Congresswoman
by Jo Freeman
in the F.A.W.L. Journal, Spring 2000, p. 15.
November of 1928 the voters of Florida's Fourth CD, in a state that
had not yet ratified the 19th Amendment, elected Ruth Bryan Owen to
represent them in Congress. She was one of three women, all named
Ruth, elected to Congress that year. Two were the daughters of famous
was born in Illinois, the oldest child of two lawyers, Williams Jennings
Bryan and Mary Elizabeth Baird Bryan. As a Member of Congress from
Nebraska for two terms and the candidate of the Democratic Party for
President three times (1896, 1900, 1908) Bryan gave his daughter inside
lessons on politics and campaigns. In 1908, at age 23, she was responsible
for his campaign correspondence, acquiring an intimate knowledge of
the personal relationships involved in politics.
inherited from her father his oratorical skills, but not his love
for the law. After two years at the University of Nebraska she married
an artist and promptly had two children. She divorced him in 1909
and married a British Army officer in 1910. This spousal switch cost
her her American citizenship, as a 1907 law specified that all married
women took the citizenship of their husbands.
many years Ruth traveled the world with her husband, bearing two more
children and working as a volunteer nurse in a military hospital in
World War I. As a result of injuries suffered during that war Major
Owen became an invalid and the family moved to Florida, where Ruth's
parents had retired. For several years she earned money on the lecture
circuit and involved herself in community activities.
did not run for Congress until 1926, after her famous father's death,
and did not win on her first try. She did win her second race, after
her husband's death, despite only token support from the Democratic
Party organization and outspoken opposition from many voters who did
not believe women belonged in politics. She won because she took her
campaign directly to the voters, bypassing the organization, a tactic
she had learned campaigning with her father, who also faced hostility
from his own party in many states.
Republican opponent did not readily accept his loss to a woman. He
challenged Ruth's election on the ground that she had not been a citizen
for seven years when elected, as required by Article I, Section 2
of the U.S. Constitution. Since Section 5 provides that "each
House shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications
of its own members," the House Elections Committee held hearings.
argued her own case before the Committee. While she had not been vocal
as a feminist, she effectively combined a feminist appeal with a traditionally
feminine one. She told them that the 1907 law only applied to women,
but not to men who married aliens. While the 1922 Cable Act made it
possible for women like herself to be "renaturalized" it
was difficult to do so. She had finally accomplished this in 1925.
had it taken so long? Because she had to care for and support her
husband and family, and these duties were demanding. The new law was
so exacting that it was three years after passage before she could
meet its requirements without neglecting her family obligations. The
Committee voted to seat her as a Member, and on June 6, 1930 the House
concurred, by 66 to 30.
1930 Owen won re-election unopposed, but in 1932, she ran into a new
kind of opposition: a special interest campaign to repeal Prohibition.
the 1928 election, opponents of the 18th Amendment began a major campaign
for what would become the 21st Amendment. One of their leaders was
Pauline Morton Sabin, who resigned as the Republican National Committeewoman
from New York to found the Women's Organization for National Prohibition
Reform (WONPR). By the 1932 election it had grown to 600,000 members,
of all political parties, and was targeting candidates for Congress
who supported Prohibition.
her father, Ruth Bryan Owen was a strong "dry." Since Florida
was a Democratic state, WONPR found a "wet" man to oppose
her in the party primary. With Repeal as the main issue, Owen lost
wasn't out of office for long. In April of 1933, the new Democratic
President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, appointed her as Minister to
Denmark (a rank lower than Ambassador). She served successfully until
1936 when she married a Danish Captain of the King's Guard. This gave
her dual citizenship as a Dane, so she resigned her post.
Ruth never ran for office again, her political interests were passed
on to her daughter, Helen Rudd Owen. In 1958 and 1960 she ran for
Congress in California as Rudd Brown, but in a Republican district
where she was defeated. Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde died in 1954, and was
buried in Denmark. The Cable Act was amended several times until women's
citizenship requirements were finally the same as men's.
Black, Ruby A., "The Case of Ruth Bryan Owen", Equal
Rights, April 5, 1930, pp. 67-9.
Brown, Dorothy, Setting a Course: American Women in the 1920s,
Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Chamberlin, Hope, "Ruth Bryan Owen: Democrat of Florida,"
in A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress, New York:
Praeger, 1973, pp. 76-81.
Lemons, J. Stanley, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s,
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 63-69, 235-37.
New York Times, 1929: Jan. 24, April 10, 15, May 30, Nov. 7.
Root, Grace, Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization
for National Prohibition Reform, Authorized by Mrs. Charles H.
Sabin, New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1934.
U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Elections, Arguments
and Hearings in the Contested Election Case of William C. Lawson v.
Ruth Bryan Owen, no. 1, Jan. 17, 1930.
Young, Louise M., "Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde," in Notable
American Women, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, pp. IV:591-593.