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She was born Ursula Margaret Sachs in Oxford, England, to Emma Boehm and Werner Sachs, a chemical engineer who became managing director of a multinational company dealing with non-ferrous metals. Her parents were German Jews, and Owen spent the first 18 months of her life in Berlin, after which the family was forced to leave Nazi Germany and came to London.
Owen was educated at Putney High School and from there went to St Hugh's College, where she studied medicine and took a B.A. in Physiology. She then moved into the social sciences, taking a Graduate Diploma at Bedford College in London, and working for some years as a social worker and researcher into mental health issues.
She entered the publishing profession as an editor at Frank Cass in the early 1970s. She then worked briefly at Barrie & Jenkins. In 1974, Owen became a founder director of Virago Press. As editorial director and later managing director she oversaw the creation of the Virago list. She remained on Virago's board until the company was sold to Little, Brown and Company in 1996.
In 1990 Owen was appointed director of the Paul Hamlyn Fund and cultural policy advisor to the Labour Party. The fund was established to promote and develop Labour's cultural policies under the Shadow Arts Minister Mark Fisher in the run-up to the 1992 general election. In 1993, she became editor and chief executive of Index on Censorship, a magazine for free expression founded by Stephen Spender in 1972. Owen relaunched the magazine, increasing its sales and media profile. She travelled widely for the magazine. Under her editorship from 1993 to 2006, Index became a vital source on all aspects of free expression for media and human rights organisations throughout the world and won several major awards.
Owen is a founder trustee of Free Word, a centre for literature, literacy and free expression in London. Free Word was conceived in 2004, and Owen took it through from an idea to concrete reality, finding the funding from Norwegian foundation Fritt Ord to buy a building for the centre in Farringdon Road. It opened in June 2009.
Owen is on the board of the South Bank Centre and English Touring Opera. She has been a governor of Parliament Hill Field School, on the board of the New Statesman and the committee of the Royal Literary Fund. She has lived in Egypt, Lebanon and the United States.
Owen has one daughter and four granddaughters.
- Fathers: Reflections by Daughters, Virago Press (1983)
- Whose Cities (edited with Mark Fisher), Penguin Books (1991)
- "Birthdays". The Guardian. London: Guardian News & Media: 37. 21 January 2014.
- Hattenstone, Simon (21 July 2001). "Profile: Ursula Owen - Voices from the margins". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 June 2009.
- Owen, Ursula (2006). "Apprenticeship in assimilation". Eurozine. Archived from the original on 19 June 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-19.
- "Ursula Owen". Royal Holloway, University of London. 2 June 2008. Archived from the original on 19 June 2009. Retrieved 19 June 2009.
- "The History of Virago".
- Greenstreet, Rosanna (27 April 1997). "'I heard Vaclav Havel speaking on New Year's Day'". The Independent. Archived from the original on 19 June 2009. Retrieved 19 June 2009.
- Das, Soumitra (18 February 2006). "Noise about silence". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 19 June 2009. Retrieved 19 June 2009.