Ruth Alice Allen, university professor, was born on July 28, 1889, in Cameron, Texas, to Thomas Franklin and Jennie (Adams) Allen. She grew up and attended public schools in Milam and Falls counties, where her father was a teacher and later county school superintendent. After graduation from high school she passed the teacher certification examination and then taught school for several years. She attended summer school at Baylor University and at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Southwest Texas State University) and earned her diploma or permanent teaching certificate in 1914. She entered the University of Texas in 1918 and received a B.A. in 1921 and an M.S. in economics in 1923 with a thesis on the minimum wage. At a time when few women earned doctorates and even fewer studied economics, Allen was awarded a Ph.D. in the subject at the University of Chicago in 1933. Her dissertation, The Labor of Women in the Production of Cotton, was based on one of the first on-site investigations into the living and working conditions of women in Texas, and because the workers reflected an ethnic variety, also of the condition of African and Mexican Americans in Texas.
From 1923 until 1959 Allen taught economics at the University of Texas, where she achieved the rank of professor in 1941. For several years she was department chairman and graduate advisor. In the early 1940s, when the politically outspoken members of the economics department attracted the hostile attention of the board of regents and the state legislature, she joined her faculty colleagues in speaking out to defend academic freedom. She served on a series of faculty committees, among them the Committee of Eleven, which fought the dismissal of University of Texas president Homer Rainey by the regents in 1944.
Allen was the first economist to focus sustained scholarly attention upon the history of the Texas working people and their unions, and she was among the first to document such early labor struggles as the Cowboy Strike of 1883. She was also the first to perceive the urgent need to preserve the written documents of organized labor and to attempt to establish a labor archives for the state. Her publications, especially Chapters in the History of Organized Labor in Texas (1941) and The Great Southwest Strike (1942), influenced much later research and lay interest in the area.
In 1934–35 Allen served as supervisor for the southwestern region of the Cost of Living Division of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and during World War II she was a member of Division Eight of the War Labor Board and a member of the War Manpower Commission's Women's Policy Committee. She was a board member of the Social Science Research Council and, from 1942 to 1947, editor of the Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (now Social Science Quarterly). She was a member of numerous professional organizations, among them the American Economic Association, the Economic History Association, the Texas Association of College Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors. She was a Presbyterian.
Allen taught courses well in advance of their time, such as one on the economic status of women. She taught on a university faculty whose female members were around 10 percent in the late 1920s and concentrated primarily in such "female professions" as home economics. Allen never married. She was a member of an early suffrage organization. She was an outspoken advocate of organizing and collective bargaining for working people and the "discoverer" of their history. After her retirement from the University of Texas in 1959, she taught economics at Huston-Tillotson College for several years. She died in Austin on October 7, 1979, at the age of ninety.