Shipley, Ruth B. (1885–1966)

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Shipley, Ruth B. (1885–1966)

First woman to head a division of the U.S. Department of State. Born Ruth Bielaski in Montgomery County, Maryland, on April 20, 1885; died in Washington, D.C., on November 3, 1966; daughter of Alexander Bielaski (a Methodist minister) and Roselle Woodward (Israel) Bielaski; married Frederick William van Dorn Shipley, in 1909 (died 1919); children: Frederick William.

Born in Maryland in 1885, Ruth B. Shipley spent her childhood at her grandfather's Maryland farm and her family's home in Washington, D.C., attending high school in Washington. She got her first job at age 18, as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. She remained in that post until she resigned and moved to the Panama Canal Zone with her new husband, Frederick Shipley, in 1909.

They returned to Washington in 1914, when her husband's illness made it necessary for Shipley to support the family, which now included their son. With the help of her brother A. Bruce Bielaski, who was then head of the FBI, Ruth found a job as a clerk in the Department of State. What started as a temporary position became a 41-year career during which she became one of the highest-paid women in government. Her rise through the ranks began with her appointment as special assistant to Assistant Secretary A. Adee, followed by a position as assistant to the chief of the Office of Coordination and Review, Margaret M. Hanna . Shipley proved so successful in these jobs that she became the first permanent chief of the Passport Division, directly in charge of 70 employees, in 1928. Her annual $4,000 salary ranked her as one of the most highly compensated women on the government's payroll, and she was the first woman to head a major division of the Department of State.

Despite her high-profile position, Shipley did not relish the publicity or Washington's glittering social scene, but worked quietly and efficiently at improvements in her division. In the course of her career, her office grew significantly as she weathered the international upheaval of World War II. She was responsible for monitoring Americans' international travel when the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s severely curtailed travel in war zones. For security reasons, after the U.S. declared war on the Axis powers in 1939, all American passports were invalidated, and Shipley oversaw the international replacement process. Few citizens were permitted to travel to Axis countries, and Shipley, although she had no authority to do so, banned Japanese-Americans from fishing off the Pacific Coast without passports. (That effectively cut off the livelihoods of Japanese immigrants who fished commercially, for they were not yet allowed to become naturalized citizens in that era.) Responding to press questions of heavy-handedness at the Passport Division during the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted with respect, "Mrs. Shipley is a wonderful ogre." After the war, Shipley found her role expanded even further as she began supervising visas and immigration, in addition to her responsibilities with passports and American travel. With millions of files under her care, she earned the respect of Congress both for her ability to manage such vast amounts of information and because her agency was one of the few to turn a profit.

One of Shipley's most controversial actions occurred in 1950, when she contributed to the drafting of the McCarran Internal Security Act, which aimed to deny passports to suspected Communists. As a staunch anti-Communist, she used her power to restrict the travel of many leftist figures, whether they were admitted Communists or not. Under her direction, Paul and Eslanda Robeson , Linus Pauling, Arthur Miller, Rockwell Kent, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn , Leo Szilard, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Herbert Aptheker had their applications for passports rejected with the vague explanation that their travel was "prejudicial to the interests of the United States."

In the first years of the McCarran Act, Shipley's control was absolute, as there was not even an appeals process until the mid-1950s. When pressed for an explanation about why a particular passport application had been rejected, she rarely gave one, or, if she did, stated reasons that were highly political, such as her assertion that physicist Martin Kamen had not been forthright in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Shipley's role in the McCarthyism of the Cold War era drew harsh criticism from liberal America, and the power of her position was gradually dismantled during the later 1950s and the 1960s. The ability of the chief of the passport division arbitrarily to deny passports was denied with a federal appeals court's decision to install a review process in the 1950s, and in 1964, in Aptheker v. Secretary of State, the Supreme Court forced the department to offer due process to passport applicants.

By this point, Shipley had long since retired, having refused Secretary of State John Foster Dulles' request that she remain in her post. At her retirement in 1955, she was honored by the State Department with the Distinguished Service Award. She died 11 years later in Washington, D.C.


Garraty, John A., ed. American National Biography. Vol. 19. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

——, and Mark C. Carnes, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. Supplement 8. NY: Scribner, 1988.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1947. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City

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