July 5, 2019
Most genealogists are aware that, until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, women in the United States could not vote. Fewer may realize that until 1922, the vast majority of immigrant women to the United States did not become citizens in their own right.
From 1855 until 1922, most female immigrants gained what was called “derivative citizenship.” This meant that they didn’t need to apply for citizenship but automatically became citizens if their husbands were or when their husbands were naturalized. The result is that there usually are no records of a woman’s naturalization. For example, my grandmother came from Norway in 1914, met my grandfather and married him in 1917. He was native born, so the moment she said “I do,” she was an American. Of course, she couldn’t vote, but neither could any other woman at that time. There are no records of her naturalization, and when she later applied for a passport to visit her family in Norway, she only needed to prove her husband’s status as native born, which she did with a copy of his birth certificate.
Although my grandmother was a citizen the moment she married my grandfather, the reverse would not have been true due to a law called the Expatriation Act passed in 1907. This law linked a woman’s citizenship directly to that of her husband which meant that an American woman who married a citizen of a foreign country between 1907 and 1922 lost her citizenship. It didn’t matter if her family had been in America since the Mayflower, once she married an alien, she was no longer an American. If her husband was later naturalized, she would then regain her citizenship, but if he didn’t choose to naturalize or was ineligible for citizenship, a woman had no way to reclaim her citizenship. Since a major benefit of being a citizen was the right to vote, the law probably had little impact during the first few years it was in effect. However, during World War I, non-citizens from countries such as Germany and Austria were required to register as enemy aliens. That would have included American-born wives. In some cases, women were even expelled to their so-called “home countries,” where many had never even visited, much less lived; most couldn’t speak the language and had no contacts in these foreign countries. If the “home countries” didn’t have a law similar to that of the U.S. where women who married citizens were automatically citizens, women could end up stateless, unable to get a passport or legally live anywhere. That didn’t matter to the courts; in 1915, the Supreme Court ruled that when an American woman married a foreigner she knew what she was doing and was voluntarily giving up her citizenship. They further stated that American women who married foreign men and retained their citizenship might be able to aid or protect German spies.
After women finally received the vote in 1920, they began pressuring Congress to reverse the Expatriation Act. Probably partially in an effort to woo all of the newfound voters that women represented, Congress passed the Cable Act in 1922 which allowed women to regain their citizenship, although it did require them to undergo the same process of naturalization as a foreign-born man would. Eventually, that somewhat laborious requirement was dropped, and by 1940, all women who had lost their citizenship could regain it by swearing an oath of allegiance.
The end result for genealogists is that they will rarely find naturalization records for female ancestors before 1922; however, it is definitely worth checking for expatriation and repatriation records for women who may have married foreign men in the early 20th century.
Researcher/Director at Large