Shipley was born Ruth Bielaski on April 20, 1885 in Montgomery County, Maryland, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She attended high school in Washington, D.C., took the civil service examination and first worked for the Patent Office beginning in 1908. She was married to Frederick W. van Dorn Shipley in 1909. She left government service for several years while the couple lived in the Panama Canal Zone, where he worked in government administration until his poor health forced their return to the United States. They had a son born about 1911 who was given his father's name. She joined the State Department on August 25, 1914. Her husband died in 1919. In 1924 she became assistant chief of the Office of Coordination and Review.
Passport Division head
She became head of the Passport Division in 1928, the first woman to hold the position, after twice declining the appointment. She succeeded foreign service officer Parker Wilson Buhrman and initially headed a staff of more than 70.
In 1930, she was a member of the United States delegation to the Hague conference on the codification of international law.
In 1933, she led a successful campaign over the objections of some at the State Department, to prevent a magazine's advertising campaign from using the word "passport" to identify its promotional literature. She believed it "cheapened...the high plane to which a passport had been raised."
In 1937, she altered the Passport Division's policies and began issuing passports in a married woman's maiden name alone if she requested it, no longer followed by the phrase "wife of". She noted that the passports of married men never carried "husband of" as further identification.
Government policy with respect to passport issuance changed radically with the course of international relations during her tenure. The Neutrality Act of 1939 restricted travel by American citizens to certain areas and forbade transport on the ships of nations involved in hostilities. Shipley reviewed every application personally and the number of passports issued fell from 75,000 monthly in 1930 to 2,000. She also oversaw the issuance of new passports to all citizens abroad and the incorporation of new anti-counterfeiting measures into their design.
According to a 1939 newspaper profile of Shipley, she had the authority "to comply with or to deny applicants, and in the main tends to grant as many as possible under the legal restrictions. When a complex case arises, however, she admits it to a board of advisers who constitute a supreme court of arbitration on the matter." In 1945 Fortune called her "redoubtable" and in 1951 Time described her as "the most invulnerable, most unfirable, most feared and most admired career woman in Government." That same year Reader's Digest wrote that: "No American can go abroad without her authorization. She decides whether the applicant is entitled to a passport and also whether he would be a hazard to Uncle Sam's security or create prejudice against the United States by unbecoming conduct."
Her authority was widely acknowledged and rarely challenged with success. Decisions of the Passport Division were not subject to judicial review during her years of service and her authority was described as "limitless discretion." Bill Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) first tried to win favor with Shipley by hiring her brother. When she nevertheless insisted on identifying OSS agents by noting "on Official Business" on their passports, Donovan had to get President Roosevelt to reverse her. Her efforts to deny travel privileges to the children of U.S. diplomats were similarly overridden in the years following World War II.
In 1942, she was criticized for issuing a passport to a Polish-American Catholic priest who visited Joseph Stalin to plead for a democratic post-war Poland. President Roosevelt defended her. By the end of World War II her staff numbered more than 200.
Because of her personal role in issuing passports, many important figures corresponded with and met with her to document their reasons for travel abroad, including W. E. B. Du Bois, playwright Lillian Hellman, and Manhattan project physicist Martin David Kamen.
In the 1950s she became the object of controversy when critics accused her of denying passports without due process on the basis of politics, while critics defended her actions as attempts to support the fight against Communism. Senator Wayne Morse called her decisions "tyrannical and capricious" for failure to disclose the reasons for the denial of passport applications. Her supporters included Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Senator Pat McCarran. Such decisions were made necessary by Section 6 of the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, which made it a crime for any member of a communist organization to use or obtain a passport. This provision was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in its 1964 decision in the case of Aptheker v. Secretary of State.)
In September 1952, Secretary of State Dean Acheson called his relations with Shipley's "Queendom of Passports" "a hard struggle" and said that passport, travel and visa issues were "the most distasteful part of this job." In 1953, she refused Linus Pauling a passport for travel to travel to accept the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because, using the standard language of her office, it "would not be in the best interests of the United States," but was overruled.
Upon her retirement, an editorial in the New York Times attributed her reputation for "arbitrary" decision to the fact that she had to enforce newly restrictive government policies. Despite the conflict between individual freedom and government policies, it said, "there was never any doubt that Mrs. Shipley did her duty as she saw it."
She retired on April 30, 1955, when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. She said that she chose her successor, Frances G. Knight, herself. The State Department awarded her its Distinguished Service Medal upon retirement.
Alexander Bielaski, an uncle, died fighting for the Union at the Battle of Belmont; his son, Shipley's first cousin Oscar Bielaski, was a professional baseball player. Her brother A. Bruce Bielaski headed the Bureau of Investigation, later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the Department of Justice during World War I.
- New York Times: "Ruth B. Shipley, Ex-Passport Head," November 4, 1966, accessed November 22, 2011
- Find a Grave: "Ruth Bielaski Shipley", accessed November 22, 2011
- New York Times: Kathleen McLaughlin, "Woman's Place Also in the Office, Finds Chief of the Nation's Passport Division," December 24, 1929, accessed November 22, 2011
- New York Times: "Passport Chief to End Career," February 25, 1955, accessed November 22, 2011
- New York Times: Harold B. Hinton, "Guardian of American Passports," April 27, 1941, accessed November 22, 2011
- Kahn, "Extraordinary," 843
- New York Times: "Woman Passport Chief," April 19, 1928, accessed November 22, 2011
- Kahn, "Extraordinary," 846
- Candice Lewis Bredbenner, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship (University of California Press, 1998), 226
- Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (Oxford University Press, 2010), 40-1
- Robertson, Passport in America, 53
- Jeffrey Kahn, "The Extraordinary Mrs. Shipley: How the United States Controlled International Travel Before the Age of Terrorism," Connecticut Law Review, vol. 43, February 2011, 821, available online, accessed November 28, 2011
- "Kahn, "Extraordinary," 840
- Kent v. Dulles (1958) established judicial review of passport decisions. Kahn, "Extraordinary," 822
- Douglas Waller, Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage (NY: First Free Press, 2011), 99; Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage (NY: Random House, 2002), 187
- Kahn, "Extraordinary," 861
- Kahn, "Extraordinary," 859-60
- Kahn, "Extraordinary," 860
- Herbert Aptheker, ed., The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, Volume 3: Selections, 1944-1963 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1978), 332, 345
- Robert P. Newman, The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), passim
- Martin David Kamen, Radiant Science, Dark Politics: A Memoir of the Nuclear Age (University of California Press, 1985), 214
- Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. ?
- OSU Library: Letter from Ruth B. Shipley to Linus Pauling. February 14, 1952, accessed November 28, 2011
- Paul Berg and Maxine Singer, George Beadle, An Uncommon Farmer: The Emergence of Genetics in the 20th Century (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2003), 219
- New York Times: "Mrs. Shipley Abdicates," February 26, 1955, accessed November 22, 2011
- New York Times: "Mrs. Shipley Cited by Anti-Red Groups," May 11, 1955, accessed November 22, 2011
- Kahn, "Extraordinary," 821-2