Rohde, Ruth Bryan Owen (1885–1954)

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Rohde, Ruth Bryan Owen (1885–1954)

American speaker, author, U.S. congressional representative, diplomat, and first woman envoy. Name variations: Ruth Bryan Owen; Ruth Bryan Leavitt. Pronunciation: Rohde rhymes with soda. Born Ruth Baird Bryan on October 2, 1885, in Jacksonville, Illinois; died of a heart attack on July 26, 1954, in Copenhagen, Denmark; daughter of Mary Baird Bryan (a lawyer) and William Jennings Bryan (a wellknown politician); attended elementary school, Lincoln, Nebraska; Monticello Seminary, Godfrey, Illinois (1899–1901); and University of Nebraska (1901–1903); married William Homer Leavitt, on October 3, 1903 (divorced 1909); married Reginald Altham Owen, on May 3, 1910 (died 1927); married Borge Rohde, on July 11, 1936; children: (first marriage) Ruth "Kitty" Leavitt (b. 1904), John BairdLeavitt (b. 1905); (second marriage) Reginald Bryan Owen, Helen Rudd Owen.


several honorary degrees and many awards, including the Danish Order of Merit conferred by King Frederick IX (1954); inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame (1992).

Served as Bryan's presidential campaign secretary and manager (1908); was a Chautauqua lecturer (1919–28); served as a nurse in World War I; served as faculty member and on University of Miami board of regents (1925–28); elected U.S. congressional representative from Florida (1928–32); appointed U.S. minister to Denmark (1933–36); named presidential appointee to San Francisco Conference to create the United Nations (1945); named alternate delegate to Fourth United Nations General Assembly (1949–50); served as acting president of the Institute for International Government (1952–53).

Selected writings:

The Elements of Public Speaking (1931); Leaves from a Greenland Diary (1935); Denmark Caravan (1936); The Castle in the Silver Wood and Other Scandinavian Fairy Tales (1939); Picture Tales From Scandinavia (1939); Look Forward, Warrior (1942); Caribbean Caravel (1949).

Like her father William Jennings Bryan, Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde was a politician, the first woman elected to Congress from the Old South. Like him, she was a spellbinding speaker on the Chautauqua circuit, booked coast to coast at town and city lecture halls. When President Franklin Roosevelt chose her to be the first woman to head an embassy overseas, he received an irate letter from one of Rohde's fans back in her childhood home of Lincoln, Nebraska, berating him for sending her to a foreign country. "We don't feel we are so deeply indebted to any country that we need give them the prize of all American women," she protested. "Heavens knows it's seldom enough we have a taste of the white meat. So why send the choice bit to the Danes?" The president's secretary replied that FDR was sorry to hear of the woman's disappointment, but was "very glad indeed that Mrs. Owen [accepted] this very important post." So off Rohde went in May 1933, with three of her four children and three grandchildren, to another rendezvous with history.

Rohde had been making history nearly all her life. It was a family tradition. Her grandfather, Silas Bryan, had been an Illinois state senator and circuit court judge. Her father, who had moved the family to Nebraska to improve his political prospects, was elected to Congress at the age of 30 when Ruth was just five years old. He often took his daughter with him to the Capitol, carrying her on his shoulder.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president following his electrifying "Cross of Gold" speech. While Republican William McKinley conducted a sedate "front porch" campaign, Bryan took his family on an 18,000 mile crosscountry speaking tour, and the 11-year-old Ruth was delegated to help answer fan mail. He ran again in 1900, but he was defeated both times, and Ruth learned to accept criticism and political rejection philosophically.

After two years at the University of Nebraska, and a stint at Jane Addams ' Hull House where she developed a concern for children that would mark her entire career, Rohde left school to marry an artist nearly twice her age on the day after her 18th birthday. The couple had two children: Ruth, called Kitty (b. 1904), and John (b. 1905). Shortly thereafter, they separated. Ruth managed her father's third and final unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1908. The following year, she and her husband divorced. Rohde, as the sole support of her children, began her lifelong vocation as a lecturer, substituting for her father on the Chautauqua circuit. In 1910, she married Reginald Owen, an Englishman she had met in Europe, and spent two happy years with him in Jamaica, where their son Reginald Bryan was born.

At the outbreak of World War I, her husband was sent to the Middle East, while Ruth worked in London with Mrs. Herbert Hoover (Lou Henry Hoover ) in the American Women's War Relief Fund Association. Just before civilian travel was halted, Rohde took her baby to Egypt, enrolling in a nursing course in order to work with the British Volunteer Aid Detachment in Cairo war hospitals. Her husband, who became one of her patients when he developed kidney disease, remained an invalid for the rest of his life. As a result of her wartime experiences, Ruth became a tireless advocate for peace.

The Owens moved to Florida, where the warm weather was expected to benefit Reginald; Ruth's parents had also settled there. Once again Rohde's income was needed to support her family, and she resumed her Chautauqua lectures just eight months after the birth of her fourth child, Helen Rudd Owen . She often felt torn between her family and work responsibilities, as when her lecture schedule prevented her from attending her older daughter's wedding.

After her father's death in 1925, Rohde continued the tradition of public service, running for Congress in 1926, although the political climate was not friendly to women; just six years earlier, Florida had failed to ratify the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Despite losing the race, and the death of her husband in 1927, Rohde ran again in 1928, covering the Fourth Congressional District, over 500 miles long, in a green Ford coupe, making as many as seven speeches a day. After her election, her defeated opponent challenged her right to hold office. American law at the time of her marriage had deprived women who married foreigners of their citizenship. In 1925, the Cable Act had restored her nationality, but her opponent claimed that she had therefore been a citizen less than the constitutionally required seven-year minimum. Rohde argued her own case before the House of Representatives. She was not only admitted, but the prestigious Committee on Foreign Affairs increased their membership by one to include her. She was re-elected in 1930, and worked all four years for economic development in the state as well as for feminist goals like a Cabinet-level Department of Home and Child. In 1932, she was defeated on the issue of prohibition, which she had always supported, although she herself was not a total abstainer.

New York Times, September 1, 1936">

The first "Madame Minister" … has proved two things: first, that a woman diplomat can serve her country as ably and acceptably as a man, and second, that she has several hurdles to cross before she enjoys equal status.

The New York Times, September 1, 1936

Women fared well in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, with Frances Perkins in the Cabinet and Nellie Tayloe Ross as director of the U.S. Mint. Rohde was named minister to Denmark, the highest ranking office (at that time the U.S. did not have an ambassador) and the first woman head of mission. She served in Copenhagen a little over three years, winning recognition for her trade negotiations and her efforts to interpret the two cultures to each other. She also studied the Danish social programs, models for those being initiated back in the United States. Because of currency fluctuations, Rohde's salary was effectively cut by 40%, so she spent her summers once again on the lecture circuit. Sometimes she spoke about the New Deal's accomplishments, and James Farley, FDR's campaign manager, urged her to take part in the 1936 campaign.

When Ruth returned to the States in July 1936, it was with the surprising news that she intended to marry Captain Borge Rohde of the Danish King's Life Guards. The wedding was held in the Roosevelts' church in Hyde Park, and the president and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the wedding reception. By her marriage, Ruth Rohde became a Danish citizen, and her dual nationality, as well as her heavy speaking schedule, prompted calls for her to resign from her post. She agreed, apparently without bitterness, despite the fact that men married to foreign nationals were never called upon to make the same sacrifice. Soon after the start of her campaign trip in a car with a trailer, she injured her leg in an accident, and had to spend over a month in the hospital. She gamely made a nationwide speech from her bed.

During the war, Rohde wrote a book calling for a "union of nations," and in 1945 was named to the Public Liaison Division of the State Department to participate in the San Francisco Conference leading to the organization of the United Nations. In 1949, Harry Truman appointed her U.S. Alternate Representative to the Fourth Session of the U.N. General Assembly, where she served until the following year. She founded the Institute for International Government to support the United Nations in 1952, and acted as president for one year.

By 1954, after more than 50 years of demanding public service, Rohde was ready to retire. She and her husband set off on a world cruise, and in early July stopped in Denmark, where Ruth received the Danish Medal of Merit from King Frederick IX. A few days after the ceremony at the Royal Palace, Ruth suffered a heart attack. Shortly after leaving the hospital several weeks later, she suffered a second and fatal heart attack on July 26. Her ashes were buried in the Ordrup Cemetery outside of Copenhagen.


Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. NY: Praeger, 1973.

Vickers, Sarah P. "The Life of Ruth Bryan Owen: Florida's first congresswoman and America's first woman diplomat" (unpublished dissertation), 1992.

Kristie Miller , author of Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics, 1880–1944 (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)