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Women And Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940: Part 1

by Marian L. Smith

Immigrants at Ellis Island In general, immigrant women, such as these arrivals at Ellis Island, have always had the right to become U.S. citizens, but a succession of laws in the nineteenth century worked to keep certain women out of the naturalization process. (NARA, 90-G-125-3)

The fact that women are not equally represented among the nation's early naturalization records often surprises researchers. Those who assume naturalization practice and procedure have always been as they are today may spend valuable time searching for a nonexistent record. At the same time, many genealogists do find naturalization records for women. The resulting confusion about this subject generates a demand for clear, simple instructions by which to guide research. Unfortunately, the only rule one can apply to all U.S. naturalization records--certainly all those prior to September 1906--is that there was no rule.[1]

There were certain legal and social provisions, however, governing which women did and did not go to court to naturalize. In general, immigrant women have always had the right to become U.S. citizens, but not every court honored that right. Since the mid-nineteenth century a succession of laws worked to keep certain women out of naturalization records, either by granting them derivative citizenship or barring their naturalization altogether. It is this variety of laws covering the history of women's naturalization, as well as different courts' varying interpretation of those laws, that help explain whether a naturalization record exists for any given immigrant woman.

While original U.S. nationality legislation of 1790, 1795, and 1802 limited naturalization eligibility to "free white persons," it did not limit eligibility by sex. But as early as 1804 the law began to draw distinctions regarding married women in naturalization law. Since that date, and until 1934, when a man filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen but died prior to naturalization, his widow and minor children were "considered as citizens of the United States" if they/she appeared in court and took the oath of allegiance and renunciation.[2] Thus, among naturalization court records, one could find a record of a woman taking the oath, but find no corresponding declaration for her, and perhaps no petition.

Baier petition Barbara M. Baier applied for citizenship in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on January 29, 1892. The clerk had to alter the text to "a woman of good moral character." (NARA, Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)

Unless a woman was single or widowed, she had few reasons to naturalize prior to the twentieth century. Women, foreign-born or native, could not vote. Until the mid-nineteenth century, women typically did not hold property or appear as "persons" before the law. Under these circumstances, only widows and spinsters would be expected to seek the protections U.S. citizenship might afford. One might also remember that naturalization involved the payment of court fees. Without any tangible benefit resulting from a woman's naturalization, it is doubtful that many women or their husbands considered the fees to be money well spent.

New laws of the mid-1800s opened an era when a woman's ability to naturalize became dependent upon her marital status. The act of February 10, 1855, was designed to benefit immigrant women. Under that act, "[a]ny woman who is now or may hereafter be married to a citizen of the United States, and who might herself be lawfully naturalized, shall be deemed a citizen." Thus alien women generally became U.S. citizens by marriage to a U.S. citizen or through an alien husband's naturalization. The only women who did not derive citizenship by marriage under this law were those racially ineligible for naturalization and, since 1917, those women whose marriage to a U.S. citizen occurred suspiciously soon after her arrest for prostitution. The connection between an immigrant woman's nationality and that of her husband convinced many judges that unless the husband of an alien couple became naturalized, the wife could not become a citizen. While one will find some courts that naturalized the wives of aliens, until 1922 the courts generally held that the alien wife of an alien husband could not herself be naturalized.[3]

In innumerable cases under the 1855 law, an immigrant woman instantly became a U.S. citizen at the moment a judge's order naturalized her immigrant husband. If her husband naturalized prior to September 27, 1906, the woman may or may not be mentioned on the record which actually granted her citizenship. Her only proof of U.S. citizenship would be a combination of the marriage certificate and her husband's naturalization record. Prior to 1922, this provision applied to women regardless of their place of residence. Thus if a woman's husband left their home abroad to seek work in America, became a naturalized citizen, then sent for her to join him, that woman might enter the United States for the first time listed as a U.S. citizen.[4]

In other cases, the immigrant woman suddenly became a citizen when she and her U.S. citizen fiance were declared "man and wife." In this case her proof of citizenship was a combination of two documents: the marriage certificate and her husband's birth record or naturalization certificate. If such an alien woman also had minor alien children, they, too, derived U.S. citizenship from the marriage. As minors, they instantly derived citizenship from the "naturalization-by-marriage" of their mother. If the marriage took place abroad, the new wife and her children could enter the United States for the first time as citizens. Again, if these events occurred prior to September 27, 1906, it is doubtful any of the children actually appear in what is, technically, their naturalization record. The lack of any record for those children's naturalization might cause some of them, after reaching the age of majority, to go to naturalization court and become citizens again.

Just as alien women gained U.S. citizenship by marriage, U.S.-born women often gained foreign nationality (and thereby lost their U.S. citizenship) by marriage to a foreigner. As the law increasingly linked women's citizenship to that of their husbands, the courts frequently found that U.S. citizen women expatriated themselves by marriage to an alien. For many years there was disagreement over whether a woman lost her U.S. citizenship simply by virtue of the marriage, or whether she had to actually leave the United States and take up residence with her husband abroad. Eventually it was decided that between 1866 and 1907 no woman lost her U.S. citizenship by marriage to an alien unless she left the United States. Yet this decision was probably of little comfort to some women who, resident in the United States since birth, had been unfairly treated as aliens since their marriages to noncitizens.[5]


[1]For information on the location of federal, state, and local court naturalization records and their availability on microfilm, see Christine Shaefer, Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States (1997). For information about various aspects of naturalization laws and procedures, see John J. Newman, American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985 (1985).

[2] Act of March 26, 1804--Widow and Children of Declarant (§ 2168) "shall be considered as citizens of the United States, and shall be entitled to all rights and privileges as such, upon taking the oaths prescribed by law." Repealed by Basic Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906, but continued in section 4(6) of that act. Repealed 1934, but citizenship of those who previously gained citizenship under this provision remained secure. An act of February 24, 1911, allowed the wives of insane declarants to naturalize following the same procedure.

[3]Act of Feb. 10, 1855 (§ 1994, rev. § 2172); see In re Rionda, 164 F 368 (1908); United States v. Cohen, 179 F 834 (1910).

[4]Sidney Kansas, Citizenship of the United States of America (1936), p. 67.

[5] Frederick A. Cleveland, American Citizenship as Distinguished from Alien Status (1927) pp. 65-66.

About The Author

Marian L. Smith is the senior historian for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington, D.C. She writes and speaks about the history of the agency.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.