Jan 29, 2021

When Women Lost their Citizenship

January 29, 2021

Have you ever wondered whether any of your female relatives were stripped of their U.S. citizenship. Shades of Mata Hari, you might be thinking. Of course my ancestors didn’t lose their citizenship; they weren’t spies or seditionists. My family came to America in the 1600s. All of them were birthright citizens. In spite of that, it might surprise you to find that some of your female ancestors might actually have lost their citizenship if they married the wrong man in the time period between 1907 and 1922.


In 1907, the U.S. government passed a law whereby a woman who married a non-citizen automatically lost her citizenship. Over the next few years, hundreds of American women were affected by the law. The case was even taken to the Supreme Court, and in 1915, they ruled that the law was constitutional because the law was well-known to the public. Therefore, women knew what they were doing when they married non-naturalized men. Never mind the fact that men frequently married non-native women and that those women instantly became U.S. citizens upon their marriage. Women, after all, should have known better.


Eventually, women got the vote in 1920, and one of their first goals was to overturn the law which stripped women of their citizenship. Since congressmen and senators knew that women voters were a large constituency that they didn’t want to lose, they overturned the law which tied a woman’s citizenship to her husband’s in 1922. However, citizenship wasn’t automatically returned to those women in 1922; they had to petition to have their rights reinstated. Since there were costs involved as well as the hassle of filing documents, effectively this meant that many women were still considered aliens up until the 1940s. This happened even though they had been born and lived their entire lives in the U.S.


When I learned about this seemingly unfair treatment of American women, I found it an interesting side note to history, but I didn’t expect that I’d ever find anyone on my own family tree who was actually affected. Surprisingly, I have since found a of couple women in my family who lost their citizenship. All it took to find them was a quick review of the censuses between 1900 and 1940, all of which included questions about a person’s naturalization status.


In one case, I was aware that my great grand uncle George Terry had been born in Canada in 1838 and that his family moved to the United States when he was only three months old. I’d never paid much attention to George’s citizenship status. After all, he lived the rest of his eighty plus years in the U.S. and was even a soldier in the Civil War. I just assumed that somewhere along the line he’d naturalized (or maybe his father had when he was still a child).


This week I’ve been doing a little digging into the naturalization status of some of my relatives and decided to look further into George’s situation. The last census George appeared in was the 1920 one when he was 82 years old. Under the citizenship questions, he is listed as having come to the U.S. in 1838. He is further listed as being “AL” or alien. Apparently, he never naturalized during all of those years. That was surprising enough, but the next line shocked me even more. George had remarried in 1919 after the death of his first wife. Addie, his second wife, was listed right below George’s entry with a birthplace of Wisconsin. Under the category of year she arrived in the U.S., there is no date, just a large “x”. Her citizenship status was listed as “AL” just like her husband’s. This, even though she had clearly been born in the U.S. and had apparently never left, as indicated by the “x” for when she arrived.


Even though I knew about the law stripping women of their citizenship when they married an alien, I was still shocked to find that someone in my own family had been affected. I wonder if Addie even knew she was losing her citizenship when she married George. The marriage was a late-in-life one probably predicated on her taking care of George in his old age in return for him providing for her financially. The marriage was apparently not a happy one since Addie and George divorced in 1922. Both died within a few years, and I have found no record indicating that Addie ever petitioned to reclaim her citizenship.


Since finding out about George and Addie, I’ve looked at a few other censuses and found at least a couple more situations just like theirs in my family tree. The period when women lost their citizenship, 1907 to 1922, was a time when immigration to the United States was high and followed nearly a century of high immigration rates. It’s not surprising that many women married non-naturalized immigrants, probably many unwittingly. There are undoubtedly thousands of similar stories, and it’s worth checking whether any of them are on your family tree.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large