Ruth Bielaski Shipley (April 20, 1885 – November 3, 1966) was head of the Passport Division of the United States Department of State for 27 years from 1928 to 1955.
She became head of the Passport Division in 1928, the first woman to hold the position, after twice declining the appointment. She succeeded foreign service officer Parker Wilson Buhrman and initially headed a staff of more than 70.
In 1930, she was a member of the United States delegation to the Hague conference on the codification of international law.
In 1933, she led a successful campaign over the objections of some at the State Department, to prevent a magazine’s advertising campaign from using the word “passport” to identify its promotional literature. She believed it “cheapened…the high plane to which a passport had been raised.”
In 1937, she altered the Passport Division’s policies and began issuing passports in a married woman’s maiden name alone if she requested it, no longer followed by the phrase “wife of.” She noted that the passports of married men never carried “husband of” as further identification.
Government policy concerning passport issuance changed radically with the course of international relations during her tenure. The Neutrality Act of 1939 restricted travel by American citizens to certain areas and forbade transport on the ships of nations involved in hostilities. Shipley reviewed every application personally, and the number of passports issued fell from 75,000 monthly in 1930 to 2,000. She also oversaw the issuance of new passports to all citizens abroad and the incorporation of new anti-counterfeiting measures into their design.
According to a 1939 newspaper profile of Shipley, she had the authority “to comply with or to deny applicants, and in the main tends to grant as many as possible under the legal restrictions. When a complex case arises, however, she admits it to a board of advisers who constitute a supreme court of arbitration on the matter.” In 1945 Fortune called her “redoubtable” and in 1951 Time described her as “the most invulnerable, most unfirable, most feared and most admired career woman in Government.” That same year Reader’s Digest wrote that: “No American can go abroad without her authorization. She decides whether the applicant is entitled to a passport and also whether he would be a hazard to Uncle Sam’s security or create prejudice against the United States by unbecoming conduct.”
Her authority was widely acknowledged and rarely challenged with success. Decisions of the Passport Division were not subject to judicial review during her years of service and her administration was described as “limitless discretion.” Bill Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) first tried to win favor with Shipley by hiring her brother. When she nevertheless insisted on identifying OSS agents by noting “on Official Business” on their passports, Donovan had to get President Roosevelt to reverse her. Her efforts to deny travel privileges to the children of U.S. diplomats were similarly overridden in the years following World War II.
In 1942, she was criticized for issuing a passport to a Polish-American Catholic priest who visited Joseph Stalin to plead for a democratic post-war Poland. President Roosevelt defended her. By the end of World War II, her staff numbered more than 200.
Because of her role in issuing passports, many important figures corresponded with and met with her to document their reasons for travel abroad, including W. E. B. Du Bois, playwright Lillian Hellman, and Manhattan project physicist Martin David Kamen.
In the 1950s she became the object of controversy when critics accused her of denying passports without due process by politics, while critics defended her actions as attempts to support the fight against Communism. Senator Wayne Morse called her decisions “tyrannical and capricious” for failure to disclose the reasons for the denial of passport applications. Her supporters included Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Senator Pat McCarran.
In September 1952, Secretary of State Dean Acheson called his relations with Shipley’s “Queendom of Passports” “a hard struggle” and said that passport, travel and visa issues were “the most distasteful part of this job.” In 1953, she refused Linus Pauling a passport for travel to travel to accept the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because, using the standard language of her office, it “would not be in the best interests of the United States,” but was overruled.
Upon her retirement, an editorial in the New York Times attributed her reputation for “arbitrary” decision to the fact that she had to enforce newly restrictive government policies. Despite the conflict between individual freedom and government policies, it said, “there was never any doubt that Mrs. Shipley did her duty as she saw it.”
She retired on April 30, 1955, when she reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. She said that she chose her successor, Frances G. Knight, herself. The State Department awarded her its Distinguished Service Medal upon retirement.
The American Jewish League Against Communism, one of whose officers was Roy Cohn, gave her an award for “a lifetime of service to the American people.”
She died in Washington, D.C., on November 3, 1966. She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Her brother A. Bruce Bielaski worked for the Bureau of Investigation, later the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the Department of Justice during World War I.