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Today, we had lunch with my husband's high school physics teacher from 50 years ago -- the first time I've met John and his wife, Dot.  They are retired and living a life focused on family and community service.

After the peach pie and coffee, we got to talking about where they grew up (both are from small towns near Pittsburgh) and what their childhoods were like during the Depression.  John was one of seven children raised by a mom who earned some money by cleaning buildings and a dad who got occasional jobs as a laborer.  They did own a house but never a car.  Neither of his parents ever knew how to drive.  Because we live in a great country, those seven children were able to achieve college educations and financial status far beyond their parents, thanks to the GI Bill and the economic opportunities that followed World War II.

But here's the most surprising story of all:  John's Mom was born in the USA, his Dad in Scotland.  When they got married, she lost her citizenship because he was an alien!  She was able to get it back only after her husband became naturalized and even then, she had to apply and pass a citizenship exam to be re-naturalized.

Astonishing.  Women, are you listening?  

When we got home, I did a little research on this story that shocked us so.  Here is a bit of what I learned.

The history of naturalization in the United States is somewhat complex. The complexity is aggravated for women by the fact that the laws regarding naturalization and females were ambiguous, especially before 1907. For a significant portion of American history, a woman's citizenship status was derived from the status of her husband.


This derivative type of citizenship is the reason there are few naturalization records for immigrant women for most of American history. For those who were "naturalized by marriage" there generally is no mention of them in any records before 27 September 1906, when Congress standardized the naturalization process and required names of spouse and children on naturalization paperwork. Also, until women received the right to vote, there was little reason for many to bother with the expense and procedure of naturalization.

Here are some of the relevant laws:

The Basic Naturalization Act was passed on 27 September 1906, which standardized the naturalization process throughout the United States. Records after this date are more consistent than those before. No longer could just any court perform a naturalization.

On 2 March 1907 an act was passed wherein a wife's citizenship status was determined by the status of her husband. Here is where the confusion begins to get worse. For women who immigrated after this act (and before later changes were enacted), there was no real change from before (unless their husband was already a U.S. citizen). However, it was different for U.S.-born citizen females who married an alien after this date. These women would lose their citizenship status upon marriage to an alien. Many of these women would later become citizens again upon their husband's naturalization. Women who married men who were racially ineligible to naturalize lost their ability to revert back to their pre-marriage citizenship status.

On 22 September 1922, Congress passed the Married Women's Act, also known as the Cable Act. Now the citizenship status of a woman and a man were separate. This law gave each woman her own citizenship status. This act was partially drawn in response to issues regarding women's citizenship that occurred after women were given the right to vote. From this date, no marriage to an alien has taken citizenship from any U.S.-born woman. Females who had lost their citizenship status via marriage to an alien could initiate their own naturalization proceedings.

This act effected U.S. citizen women whose marriage to an alien between the acts of 1907 and 1922 had caused them to lose their citizenship status. These women, if the marriage to the alien had ended in death or divorce, could regain their citizenship by filing an application with the local naturalization court and taking an oath of allegiance. Those women still married to their husband were not covered under the act and these individuals would have to go through the complete naturalization process.

I'm sure there is so much more to this story.  If you know more, of have someone in your family who shared the experience of John's Mom, please leave a comment.

Women, we've come a long way since the early 1920's when we finally achieved the right to vote.  This is why I always vote, every year since turning 21 in 1960.  Every election, primary and general, no matter what offices and issues are on the ballot. (Voting for Obama this year was probably my happiest vote ever....)

Thanks for sharing the time to read this.

Originally posted to B ville on Wed Nov 26, 2008 at 03:22 PM PST.

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