Ruth Bryan Owen

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Ruth Bryan Owen
Ruth Bryan Owen (D–FL).jpg
United States Ambassador to Denmark
In office
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Preceded by Frederick W. B. Coleman
Succeeded by Alvin Mansfield Owsley
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933
Preceded by William J. Sears
Succeeded by J. Mark Wilcox
Personal details
Born (1885-10-02)October 2, 1885
Jacksonville, Illinois
Died July 26, 1954(1954-07-26) (aged 68)
Copenhagen, Denmark
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) William Leavitt (1903-1909) (divorce)
Reginald Altham Owen (1910-1928)(his death)
Borge Rohde (1936-1954) (her death)
Profession Politician, Author

Ruth Baird Bryan Owen (October 2, 1885 – July 26, 1954) daughter of William Jennings Bryan and Mary E. Bard. Ruth, a Democrat, became Florida’s (and the South's) first woman representative in the United States Congress in 1929, coming from Florida’s 4th district. Representative Owen was also the first woman to earn a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.[1] In 1933, she became the first woman appointed as a U.S. ambassador to another country when President Roosevelt selected her to be Ambassador to Denmark and Iceland.[2]


She was born on October 2, 1885 in Jacksonville, Illinois. Ruth's father was a 3-time presidential candidate. Growing up Ruth had to move several times depending on her fathers work in politics. Ruth attended public schools in Washington D.C and the Monticello Female Academy in Gofrey, Illinois. In 1901 she began to take classes at the University of Nebraska.

In 1903 Ruth Bryan dropped out of the University of Nebraska to marry William H. Leavitt, a well-known Newport, Rhode Island, portrait painter, who was painting Bryan's father's portrait when the couple met.[3] The couple had two children before divorcing in 1909. She married Reginald Owen, a British Army officer in 1910,[4] bearing two more children. Her second husband died in 1928. She spent three years in Oracabessa, Jamaica, where she oversaw the design and construction of her home, Golden Clouds, which is now operated as a luxury villa. Owen kept her home in Jamaica for over three decades and spent many winters there, particularly in later years when she lived in Denmark and New York. She detailed her time in Jamaica and experiences at Golden Clouds in vivid detail in her book, Caribbean Caravel.[5]

World War I[edit]

During World War I, she served as a war nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment in the Egypt-Palestine campaign, 1915-1918. From 1925 to 1928, she was an administrator at the University of Miami.

Owen first ran for office in 1926 for the Democratic nomination for Florida's Fourth Congressional District, which at the time included nearly the entire east coast of the state from Jacksonville to the Florida Keys and included Miami, Orlando and St. Augustine, losing by fewer than 800 votes.[6] Two years later, after the death of her husband, she ran again. She was elected to Congress (March 4, 1929 – March 3, 1933) while a widow and mother of four. Her election was contested on the grounds that she lost her citizenship on her marriage to an alien. By the Cable Act in 1922, she could petition for her citizenship, which she only did in 1925, less than the seven years required by the Constitution. She argued her case before the House Committee on Elections that no American man had ever lost his citizenship by marriage; therefore, Owen argued she lost her citizenship because she was a woman, not because of her marital status. The U.S. House of Representatives voted in her favor.[7][8] Although Owen won again in 1930, she was defeated for renomination in 1932 by a candidate advocating the repeal of prohibition.[9]

First U.S. female ambassador[edit]

Ruth Bryan Owen, Ambassador to Denmark, America's first woman envoy, taking the oath of office. P.F. Allen, Chief Clerk of the appointment division of the Department of State is administering the oath

From 1933 to 1936 she was United States Ambassador to Denmark, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[10][11] She served successfully until 1936 when she married Borge Rohde, a Danish Captain of the King's Guard, in July. This gave her dual citizenship as a Dane, so she resigned her post in September.[12]

She was also a delegate to the San Francisco Conference which established the United Nations after World War II. In 1948, President Truman named her an alternate delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.

She died July 26, 1954 in Copenhagen, Denmark and was cremated. Her ashes were interred at Ordrup Cemetery, Copenhagen.

Filmmaking career[edit]

Ruth Bryan Owen was a female pioneer in the film industry. She was a director, producer, and screenwriter for a feature film in 1922, called Once Upon a Time/Scheherazade which is now considered to be lost.[13] In the spring of 1921, she started up production on Once Upon a Time.[13] The film featured the Community Players of Coconut Grove, Florida, and wasn’t widely related to a major studio at the time.[14] The story line revolves around a shah who is dethroned by his jealous subordinate, who in turn uses his new power to torture young women who do not amuse him. Towards the end, the sadistic ruler runs into the most beautiful one of all, and the exiled shah returns just in time to save the young woman from his nemesis. According to the Moving Picture World, the costuming was ornate and elaborately done, the staging was complicated and the mise-en-scène evoked an "atmosphere of experience in the Far East".[13] Owen had done extensive traveling, and visited countries such as India, Burma, Sri Lanka, China and Japan. She became inspired by the places in her travels, and used that as the backdrop for her film.

The film is thought to be lost today, and little would be known about it, had it not been for the correspondence between Owen and her dear friend, Carrie Dunlap. Dunlap was from Illinois and served as campaign treasurer for William Jennings Bryan.[15] In her letters to Dunlap, Owen expresses great joy and astonishment for her film, quoting, “I can scarcely believe the film is mine when I see it ‘projected’ on the wall above our fireplace.”[16]

She came to think of herself as a true pioneer in the industry. Her correspondence with Dunlap also revealed her intent to become one of the first female filmmakers in the U.S. Owen funded the film solely from her earnings in the public speaker circuit. From her letters, Owen revealed the support she gained from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and their contribution to help secure her a distribution deal with the Society for Visual Education.[13]

Published work[edit]

  • Owen, Ruth Bryan Elements of Public Speaking New York, H. Liveright (1931)
  • Owen, Ruth Bryan Leaves from a Greenland Diary New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (1935)
  • Owen, Ruth Bryan Denmark Caravan New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (1936)
  • Owen, Ruth Bryan Picture Tales from Scandinavia Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (1939)
  • Owen, Ruth Bryan The Castle in the Silver Wood and Other Scandinavian Fairy Tales New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (1939)
  • Owen, Ruth Bryan Look Forward, Warrior New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (1942)
  • Owen, Ruth Bryan, Caribbean Caravel New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (1949)


  • Once Upon A Time-Ruth Bryan Owen


In 1939, Ruth Bryan Owen (1885–1954) and her husband purchased "The Cedars," located at Alderson, West Virginia, and began making repairs. They sold the property in 1945.[17] It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.[18]

In 1992, she was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.


  1. ^ Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. "Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives - 404". 
  2. ^ Vickers, Sarah Pauline. The Life of Ruth Bryan Owen: Florida’s First Congresswoman and America’s First Woman Diplomat. Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, (1994)
  3. ^ The Leavitt-Bryan Wedding, The New York Times, Sept. 23, 1903
  4. ^ The Owen-Bryan Wedding, The New York Times, May 4, 1910
  5. ^ Caribbean Caravel, Ruth Brown Owen, Dodd, Mead & Co. (1949), New York, 222 pages
  6. ^ Morin, Isobel V., Women Chosen for Public Office The Oliver Press, (1995), p78
  7. ^ U. S. Congress. House. Arguments and Hearings before Elections Committee No. 1; Contested Election Case of William C. Lawson v. Ruth Bryan Owen, from the Fourth Congressional District of Florida. 71st Cong., 2nd sess., 1930. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1930.
  8. ^ U. S. Congress. House. Report No. 968. Committee on Elections No. 1. William C. Lawson-Ruth Bryan Owen Election Case. Report of the Hon. Carroll L. Beedy, of Maine, chairman. 71st Cong., 2nd sess., 1930. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1930.
  9. ^ Weidling. p. 164
  10. ^ "Office of the Historian". 
  11. ^ "OWEN, Ruth Bryan - Biographical Information". 
  12. ^ "Milestones, Aug. 9, 1954". 9 August 1954. 
  13. ^ a b c d "Ruth Bryan Owen". 
  14. ^ Slide, Anthony (January 1, 1996). The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-3053-1. Retrieved 1 December 2014. 
  15. ^ McKenzie, Howard Glenn (1956). "William Jennings Bryan in Miami". diss. University of Miami. Unpublished. 
  16. ^ Owen, Ruth Bryan; Dunlap, Carrie (1907–1929). "Carrie Dunlap Papers". 
  17. ^ C.E. Turley (July 1978). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Alexander McVeigh Miller House" (PDF). State of West Virginia, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2011-07-31. 
  18. ^ Staff (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William J. Sears
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida's 4th congressional district

1929 - 1933
Succeeded by
J. Mark Wilcox
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Frederick W. B. Coleman
U.S. Ambassador to Denmark
Succeeded by
Alvin Mansfield Owsley