By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
In the early 20th century, women’s citizenship depended on their spouse’s status. Many women lost their US citizenship by marrying a foreign man. So how did Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, reclaim her status as a US citizen?
Law professor Jill E. Martin explains the unequal treatment of women’s citizenship in “Because I Was a Woman’: Ruth Bryan Owen and Her American Citizenship,” in Nebraska History Magazine’s Spring 2021 issue.
Born in Illinois and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ruth Bryan Owen lost her citizenship in 1910 upon marrying Reginald Owen, a Major in the British Army, and this became an issue years later when she ran for congress.
Initially, marriage didn’t affect a women’s citizenship. An 1855 law granted citizenship to foreign women married to American men. American-born women were considered US citizens regardless of who they married, but there was no law explicitly stating this. As concerns of estate taxes and other matters appeared, courts weren’t clear about what defined a woman’s citizenship.
An 1868 law described the terms of expatriation, the right to renounce one’s citizenship, and different courts shared different perspectives on this. By this time, American women married to foreigners were considered citizens if they resided in the US and intended to stay. However, if women moved abroad with no intent to return, courts were less likely to consider them citizens.
(Ruth Bryan Owen, June 9, 1926. Library of Congress)
In 1907 Congress passed a law declaring that a woman who married a foreigner automatically renounced her US citizenship and took that of her husband. Bryan Owen thus became a British subject under Britain’s laws. But not all countries granted American women citizenship through marriage. As a result, a woman could find herself legally without a country.
By the time Bryan Owen returned to the United States, the 19th Amendment (adopted 1920) had granted voting rights to US women. But American-born women married to aliens were ineligible.
In attempt to grant women independent citizenship, congressional bills had been introduced in 1910 and every year from 1913 to 1921, but Congress had rejected them. In 1922 Congress passed the “Cable Act,” which stated that American women would no longer automatically lose their citizenship by marrying a foreigner. The law also allowed women who previously lost citizenship a chance to regain it.
The new law, however, had a racial component. It excluded women married to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or other Asian men, who were ineligible for citizenship; and foreign women married to American men no longer gained automatic US citizenship. Two years later, a new immigration law limited the number of immigrants from various non-European countries. American-born women attempting to return to the US to naturalize as citizens had to wait their turn based on the immigration quota from their husband’s country.
As the wife of British man, Bryan Owen had an easier time restoring her citizenship. She was naturalized in 1925 and, as a resident of Florida, ran unsuccessfully for Congress the following year. She ran again in 1928 and won. But her defeated opponent protested that Bryan Owen was ineligible, citing a provision of the US Constitution that a Representative must be “seven years a citizen of the United States.”
(Representative Ruth Bryan Owen on CBS, circa 1929 – 1933. Library of Congress)
Bryan Owen argued her case before Congress, explaining that she consulted with attorneys prior to the election. She was seated in Congress after a majority of the committee decided that the Constitution did not state that the seven years had to directly precede the election. They said they couldn’t “read into language which was not there.”
Congress also amended the Cable Act in 1930. The law had previously required US women who had lost their citizenship by marriage to follow the same naturalization process as foreign-born individuals. The new law restored their status as natural-born citizens. A 1931 amendment further broadened the Cable Act to include women who married men ineligible for US citizenship.
Bryan Owen was re-elected to Congress in 1930 but lost in 1932. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as Ambassador to Denmark in 1933; the first woman to serve as a US envoy. While in Denmark, she married Captain Borge Rhode. Under Denmark’s law, she became a Danish citizen while maintaining her US citizenship. Until her death in 1954, she resided in both the States and Denmark.
(Ruth Bryan Owen as US Ambassador to Denmark, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934. Library of Congress)
Ruth Bryan Owen lost her citizenship not by choice, but by a system of laws that treated a woman’s citizenship differently than that of a man. As the laws were changed to become more equal, she was able to advance her career as a politician and diplomat.
The entire article can be found in the Spring 2021 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.