The Citizenship of American Women


THE famous trial of Susan B. Anthony stands out as the decisive legal battle which sped the day of equal suffrage. She was convicted of knowingly voting for a representative in Congress without having the right to vote. There followed a half century of incessant and untiring labor by women leaders, and their efforts found fruition in the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women equal rights of suffrage.

Public attention was then focused on the nationality rights of women in the United States. At that time the American woman who married an alien lost her right to vote and to hold office, even though she continued to live in the United States. Furthermore, the laws of some states prevented her from serving in an official appointive capacity, from teaching in the public schools, from practising law or medicine, and from carrying on many of the other vocations of life.

An alien woman at that time became an American citizen only by the consent of and through the naturalization of her alien husband, and in case her husband refused to become naturalized she could not become a citizen of this country. Again, there was a class of alien women who automatically became American citizens, either by marriage to Americans or by the naturalization of their husbands. The marriage ceremony was a naturalization process which did not give the alien woman an intimate knowledge of our country, its national institutions, ideals, and principles. She was not given the same educational advantages as her husband, who could attend citizenship schools in preparation for the naturalization examination. While her husband was studying in the night schools and her children were learning to speak English in the public schools, the alien woman was entirely neglected. If her husband’s knowledge was not sufficient to pass the examination, she also was denied the right to become naturalized. If her husband’s petition was granted, she thereby automatically became a citizen, without being required to qualify as such, and without being required to renounce her allegiance and fidelity to her former State and to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.

Such was the citizenship status of women in America.

It became apparent that the American woman was subjected to undue and unfair hardships. If she married an alien, she acquired the nationality of her husband and lost the right of protection by the United States. (The converse, however, was not true, since the American man who married an alien woman retained his American citizenship and the right of protection by the United States, even though he went to reside in the country of his wife’s nativity.)

The alien woman was in an equally unfortunate position, for her citizenship status was likewise entirely dependent upon that of her husband.

Out of this situation grew the need of independent citizenship for women, which was the next logical step in the general movement for equal rights. The woman’s privilege of making a choice of nationality should be equal to that of the man. Expatriation should be voluntary. The marriage ceremony should not determine citizenship status.


The principle of equal citizenship for women came before Congress pledged by the platforms of both major political parties. As a member of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, I introduced a bill which conformed with these pledges, and received the support not only of Congress, but also of the leading women’s organizations in the country. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was enacted into law as the Act of September 22, 1922.

That the proposition of independent citizenship for women in America, promulgated by the Act of 1922, is not a new one is readily shown by a brief review of the history of nationality laws in the United States.

In 1830 the Supreme Court held that the marriage of an American woman to an alien did not alone denationalize her.

In 1925 Secretary of State Hughes ruled that Mrs. Lewis Gehring Marshall, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, who had married a British subject before the passage of the Expatriation Act of 1907, and who had continued to reside in the United States, did not lose her American citizenship status, and was entitled to have a passport issued by the Department of State. The Act of 1907, referred to by Mr. Hughes, provided, in substance, that when an American woman married an alien she ceased to be an American citizen.

The courts were in confusion on the question of whether the marriage of an American woman to an alien changed her nationality to that of her husband. While a majority of the courts held that the American woman lost her citizenship by marriage to an alien, there was no provision whatever for her resumption of that citizenship upon termination of her marital status. It was not until the Act of 1907 that such resumption was permitted by meeting certain prescribed regulations, upon the termination of the marital status. That law also provided that the American woman who married an alien should take the nationality of her husband.

The principle of independent citizenship for alien women found at least a partial legislative expression in the Act of 1804. This act stated that when an alien had taken out his first papers, and then died before the naturalization process was completed, his wife and minor children should nevertheless be considered citizens of the United States and should be entitled to all rights and privileges of such, upon taking, in their own right, the oaths prescribed in the act.

Congress did not provide by law until 1855 that any alien woman who was then married, or should afterward be married, to an American citizen should be deemed and taken to be a citizen of the United States.

These laws determining citizenship, expatriation, and protection abroad remained in effect until Congress in 1922 passed legislation granting independent citizenship to women.


The Act of September 22, 1922, was particularly designed to give the citizenship of American women the dignity and individuality which had been the exclusive attribute of male citizenship. There was merit in the argument that a woman should have as much right as a man to determine the country of her choice, and it seemed unreasonable to deprive a married woman of the protection of the United States because of her marriage to an alien. Still another reason for sponsoring the bill which became the Act of 1922 was to make it possible for the alien wife of an alien husband to become naturalized separately and apart from the naturalization of her husband. Alien women would have to be educated in order to qualify for naturalization, which was advantageous both from the standpoint of their own interests and in view of the benefits that would accrue to the country at large.

By the terms of the Act of 1922, when an American girl marries an alien she may either retain her citizenship or take that of her husband. Miss Cornelia Vanderbilt preserved her citizenship rights after her marriage to Sir John Cecil. On the other hand, the daughter of Marshall Field, Jr., relinquished her rights of citizenship in the United States by making a formal renouncement before the Federal Court of Chicago in accordance with the terms of the act; and, by the laws of Great Britain, she became a British subject. The new law specifically provides that a woman citizen of the United States shall not cease to be a citizen by reason of her marriage after the passage of the act, unless she shall make a formal renunciation of her citizenship before a court having jurisdiction over the naturalization of aliens.

There is one exception to this privilege of electing to retain or relinquish American citizenship. The law provides that an American woman who marries an alien ineligible for citizenship thereupon loses her own citizenship. In this regard the constructive criticism of Miss Jane Addams is a good one. She writes, ‘A curious inconsistency of the Cable Act is that it takes away the birthright of an American-born woman if she marries an ineligible, — that is, a man from a country whose people cannot be made citizens, — although it is precisely under such circumstances that a woman most needs her citizenship.’

Perhaps Miss Addams is right. At any rate, I am expecting to submit to Congress the question of repealing that portion of the act. If it is desirable in some states that American women married to aliens ineligible for citizenship should not have the right to hold property, that is a matter for state laws rather than Federal nationality legislation.

Under the laws of Great Britain, which are typical of those of many States, when a British woman marries an American she loses her British nationality. She may acquire citizenship in the United States by the naturalization process, but during the interim she is sometimes a woman without a country. If otherwise admissible, she may enter the United States independently of her country’s quota because she is the wife of an American citizen. If she wishes to travel with her husband, she may use an affidavit in lieu of passport for her traveling papers. This affidavit is generally recognized by all foreign governments.

Mrs. Ernest A. Martin, who had married a German prior to the Act of 1922 and by her marriage had lost her American citizenship, returned to the United Slates to be naturalized by the shortened process provided in the act, and applicable to American women who had lost their citizenship by marriage. After residing in the United States for the required period of one year, she appeared in court for her examination. She stated that she intended to return to her husband and children in Germany, and for that reason the court refused to naturalize her, holding that her residence here was temporary rather than permanent in character, as required by the act.

I believe that any American woman who has lost her citizenship by marriage to an alien prior to the passage of the act, whether the marital status continues or whether it has been dissolved by death or divorce, should have the privilege of naturalization by establishing temporary residence in the United States and by filing her petition, offering proof of former American citizenship lost by marriage to an alien, and taking the oath of allegiance before a court of competent jurisdiction. Any alien woman, being otherwise qualified, who marries an American citizen or whose husband is naturalized after their marriage should have the privilege of becoming naturalized without being required to file a declaration of intention or to establish proof of permanent residence in the United States. Any other alien woman should continue to have the right of separate naturalization in the regular manner.

When Miss Ruth Bryan married Major R. A. Owen, a British subject, in 1910, she lost her American citizenship, according to the provisions of the Act of 1907. She did not pledge allegiance to a foreign State, nor did she renounce allegiance to the United States, under whose flag she was born, but, as she herself states, ‘I became, by reason of my marriage to Major Owen, involuntarily and automatically a British subject.’ She resided abroad for some time, and during the war was engaged in Red Cross relief work. Later she returned to the United States with Major Owen. He retained his British nationality, but Mrs. Owen, without the least hesitation, filed her petition for naturalization in a Federal court in Florida, and was by the shortened process of the Act of 1922 restored to the status of one who had never lost her citizenship.


After observing the law in operation for seven years, one might well ask, ‘Have the hopes and expectations of those who sponsored the women’s independent citizenship act been realized?’ It is true, I think, that dignity and individuality have been added to the citizenship status of women. Men and women now enjoy equally the right of assuming whatever nationality they will. The American woman is no longer automatically denationalized by her marriage to an alien and thereby deprived of the protection of the United States.

One of the most encouraging results of the act, however, has been the improvement in the educational standards of alien women who become citizens of the United States. The records of the Labor Department show that the number of alien women seeking naturalization has increased from 6011 in 1923 to 57,063 in 1929. These women have had to obtain an education in order to become citizens of the United States, and the country has benefited accordingly.

Recently the League of American Citizenship made a public report that the general character of women applicants for citizenship is higher, and the percentage of denials is smaller, than ever before. Incidentally, the League reported that while the number of foreign-born men who apply for naturalization is decreasing, the number of women is increasing steadily.

Miss Jane Addams says, ‘One good result the law has produced is that the [alien] women most valiantly prepare themselves for securing their own citizenship papers. All over Chicago the Board of Education arranges afternoon classes for these women.’ Similar provisions are made for the education of alien women in all the large cities in the country, and sometimes the educational work is even carried by teachers into the homes.

Of course, it must be realized that any law which affects a large mass of people may at times work hardship. However, it is my belief that if inconvenience, distress, and even suffering have been experienced by reason of the Act of 1922, they have been less serious than the conditions existing prior to its passage. Moreover, they can be obviated by other nations taking the same forward step in granting independent citizenship to their women, rather than by the United States taking a backward step in repealing the act and placing women again in a position subordinate to men. France, Denmark, Norway, and several other countries have recently passed laws providing that their women nationals who marry aliens do not lose their nationality unless they acquire that of their husbands.

A Convention on Nationality has been drafted by Dr. Manley O. Hudson of the Harvard Law School and an executive and advisory committee consisting of the foremost authorities on international law in the United States. This convention has been prepared in anticipation of the First Conference on the Codification of International Law at The Hague, in 1930. How well Congress has builded by the enactment of the independent citizenship law of 1922 is shown by the fact that Article 19 of the Convention recommends the inclusion of a similar statement in the proposed International Code which is to be submitted, for adoption, to all the countries of the world.

This article provides: ‘A woman who marries an alien shall, in the absence of a contrary election on her part, retain the nationality which she possessed before marriage, unless she becomes a national of the State of which her husband is a national and establishes or maintains a residence of a permanent character in the territory of the State.’