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Ruth Bryan Owen: Florida's First Congresswoman
by Jo Freeman

Published in the F.A.W.L. Journal, Spring 2000, p. 15.

Ruth Bryan OwenIn 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 political men.
Owen 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.
Ruth 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.
For 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.
She 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.
Her 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.
Ruth 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.
Why 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.
In 1930 Owen won re-election unopposed, but in 1932, she ran into a new kind of opposition: a special interest campaign to repeal Prohibition.
After 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.
Like 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 by two-to-one.
She 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.
Although 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.


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