The Riddle of Ruth Bryan Owen
70 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2015 Last revised: 30 Aug 2018
Date Written: July 9, 2015
This Article recovers a lost chapter of constitutional history — the ill-fated challenge to Ruth Bryan Owen’s congressional eligibility. Owen was the brilliant (and American-born) daughter of famed politician William Jennings Bryan, and a pioneering figure in her own right. But the Expatriation Act of 1907 stripped Owen of her American citizenship when she took a British husband. Congress swiftly repealed this loathsome feature after the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. Yet Owen’s defeated opponent claimed that she hadn’t “been seven Years a Citizen of the United States” as the Constitution requires. Because Owen had been a naturalized citizen for only three years at the time of her 1928 election, the House faced an unenviable adjudicative dilemma: does “seven Years” mean the immediately preceding seven years, or any seven years cumulatively?
Owen’s case demonstrates that the perceived clarity of even “mathematical” constitutional provisions can be shaped by purposive and pragmatic considerations extraneous to the text, considerations that often change in light of freshly received facts. This Article also presents powerful new evidence that women came to be seen as improper objects of state-sanctioned discrimination soon after the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. Owen’s triumph marks an important turning point in American women’s effort to achieve full constitutional equality. Because scholars have forgotten her story, they have overlooked crucial sources that might have helped provide a historically firmer basis for modern sex-discrimination doctrine. And as Owen’s case shows, historical practices repugnant to the modern constitutional order should never be accorded residual legal effect. This Article accordingly criticizes the Supreme Court’s plurality opinion in Kerry v. Din (2015) for citing the Expatriation Act to downplay an asserted liberty interest’s historical pedigree under the Due Process Clause.
Keywords: constitutional history, Congress, citizenship, Nineteenth Amendment, equal protection, constitutional theory, expatriation, naturalization
JEL Classification: K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation