May 28, 2021

Women’s Derivative Citizenship and Naturalization Records

Typically, it’s more difficult to research our female ancestors than our male ones. Few genealogical records exist for women because they could not vote, usually did not own land or control any other sort of property. If you are looking for naturalization records for women, you can add those records to the list of documents that are in short supply for women.


Until 1922, you will not find naturalization records for most women. One of the big reasons is derivative citizenship. Derivative citizenship occurs when the citizenship of one person is automatically “derived” from another. Historically, derivative citizenship has been available for two categories: children and women.


The very first naturalization laws passed in the U.S. in 1790 provided that minor children of a man who was naturalized were automatically granted citizenship at the same time their father. This form of derivative citizenship is still available today for children, although nowadays either parent can naturalize and confer their citizenship.


Starting in 1855, most immigrant women were also automatically made U.S. citizens when their husbands completed their own naturalization. Alternatively, an immigrant woman could marry a native born or naturalized man. She was a citizen herself as soon as she said “I do.” This situation continued until 1922 when the Cable Act required women to complete the naturalization process for themselves. Women whose citizenship had been derived prior to 1922 from their husband’s were still citizens and did not need to reapply. However, since that time, women have not been eligible for derivative citizenship.


For genealogists, what all this means is that most women who became citizens before 1922 did not file any sort of paperwork at all so no records will be found. Before 1906, men who naturalized did not even need to name a wife or children who were also naturalizing. After 1906, the wife and children were supposed to be listed on a man’s naturalization record, but I have found several naturalization records after that date which did not list the wife and children’s names. The rules were clearly not consistently followed, but it didn’t matter to the citizenship status of the wife and children. They were still citizens.


Finding a husband’s naturalization record is usually all a genealogist will ever locate for most women. However, there were some cases where a woman did naturalize in her own right. For example, if a woman wanted to file a homestead claim, she needed to be able to prove she was in the process of obtaining citizenship to qualify. Some women filed naturalization papers to meet this requirement, and those records will be available in various courts, both local and federal, just like men’s applications. In addition, if a man died while in the process of obtaining citizenship, his wife and children were sometimes granted citizenship under his name, even though he was deceased. This was often the case where a woman wanted to complete a husband’s homestead claim and needed to be a citizen to do so.


There were also situations where a woman needed proof of her citizenship. For example, if she wanted to obtain a passport, she needed to prove she was a U.S. citizen. Sometimes she would apply for a Certificate of Citizenship to do this (see my blog of May 7 for more information about this record). Copies of these records can be obtained from the United States Customs and Immigration Service-Genealogy Path ( ).


When it comes to women’s naturalization records, the rule of thumb is that women naturalized before 1922 left few records. Spending a lot of time and money on such a search will likely be useless. However, like much else in genealogy, you never know until you try. It never hurts to check the records in the area where a woman would have been naturalized. You just might get lucky.


Next week I’ll discuss the sorts of records that might exist for children who received derivative citizenship.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large