“it is not that women were unaffected by the racial bars, but that they were doubly bound by them, restricted both as individuals, and as less than individuals (that is, as wives)” (Haney López)

1855, 1868: only ‘white women’ can gain citizenship by marriage; loss of citizenship to white women married to barred men. / WBL p. 46

Notice the mention of gender in the statutory language ending racial restrictions in naturalization. The issue of women and citizenship can only be touched on here, but deserves significant study in its own right.[46] As the language of the 1952 Act implies, eligibility for naturalization once depended on a woman’s marital status. Congress in 1855 declared that a foreign woman automatically acquired citizenship upon marriage to a U.S. citizen, or upon the naturalization of her alien husband.[47] This provision built upon the supposition that a woman’s social and political status flowed from her husband. An 1895 treatise on naturalization put it, “A woman partakes of her husband’s nationality; her nationality is merged in that of her husband; her political status follows that of her husband.”[48] A wife’s acquisition of citizenship, however, remained subject to her individual qualification for naturalization–that is, on whether she was a “white person.”[49] Thus, the Supreme Court held in 1868 that only “white women” could gain citizenship by marrying a citizen.[50] Racial restrictions further complicated matters for noncitizen women in that naturalization was denied to those married to a man racially ineligible for citizenship, irrespective of the [47] woman’s own qualifications, racial or otherwise.[51] The automatic naturalization of a woman upon her marriage to a citizen or upon the naturalization of her husband ended in 1922.[52]

The citizenship of American-born women was also affected by the interplay of gender and racial restrictions. Even though under English common law a woman’s nationality was unaffected by marriage, many courts in this country stripped women who married noncitizens of their U.S. citizenship.[53] Congress recognized and mandated this practice in 1907, legislating that an American woman’s marriage to an alien terminated her citizenship.[54] Under considerable pressure, Congress partially repealed this act in 1922.[55] However, the 1922 act continued to require the expatriation of any woman who married a foreigner racially barred from citizenship, flatly declaring that “any woman citizen who marries an alien ineligible to citizenship shall cease to be a citizen.”[56] Until Congress repealed this provision in 1931,[57] marriage to a non-White alien by an American woman was akin to treason against this country: either of these acts justified stripping of citizenship from someone American by birth. Indeed, a woman’s marriage to a non-White foreigner was perhaps a worse crime, for while a traitor lost his citizenship only after trial, the woman lost hers automatically.[58] The laws governing the racial composition of this country’s citizenry came inseverably bound up with and exacerbated by sexism. It is in this context of combined racial and gender prejudice that we should understand the absence of any women among the petitioners named in the prerequisite cases: it is not that women were unaffected by the racial bars, but that they were doubly bound by them, restricted both as individuals, and as less than individuals (that is, as wives).

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 46-47.
  1. [46] See generally Ursula Vogel, Is Citizenship Gender-Specific? THE FRONTIERS OF CITIZENSHIP 58 (Ursula Vogel and Michael Moran eds., 1991).
  2. [47] Act of Feb. 10, 1855, ch. 71,§ 2, 10 Stat. 604. Because gender-based laws in the area of citizenship were motivated by the idea that a woman’s citizenship should follow that of her husband, no naturalization law has explicitly targeted unmarried women. GORDON AND MAILMAN, supra., at
    § 95.03[6] (“An unmarried woman has never been [statutorily] barred from naturalization.”).
  4. [49] Act of Feb. 10, 1855, ch. 71, § 2, 10 Stat. 604.
  5. [50] Kelly v. Owen, 74 U.S. 496, 498 (1868).
  6. [51] GORDON AND MAILMAN, supra at § 95.03[6].
  7. [52] Act of Sept. 22, 1922, ch. 411, § 2, 42 Stat. 1021.
  8. [53] GORDON AND MAILMAN, supra at § 100.03[4][m].
  9. [54] Act of March 2, 1907, ch. 2534, § 3, 34 Stat. 1228. This act was upheld in MacKenzie v. Hare, 239 U.S. 299 (1915) (expatriating a U.S.-born woman upon her marriage to a British citizen).
  10. [55] Act of Sept. 22, 1922, ch. 411, § 3, 42 Stat. 1021.
  11. [56] Id. The Act also stated that “[n]o woman whose husband is not eligible to citizenship shall be naturalized during the continuance of the marriage.”
  12. [57] Act of March 3, 1931, ch. 442, § 4(a), 46 Stat. 1511.
  13. [58] The loss of birthright citizenship was especially harsh for those women whose race made them ineligible to regain citizenship through naturalization, especially after 1924, when the immigration laws of this country barred entry to any alien ineligible to citizenship. Immigration Act of 1924, ch. 190, § 13(c), 43 Stat. 162. See, e.g., Ex parte (Ng) Fung Sign, 6 F.2d 670 (W.D.Wash. 1925). In that case, a U.S. birthright citizen of Chinese descent was expatriated because of her marriage to a Chinese citizen, and was subsequently refused admittance to the United States as an alien ineligible to citizenship.

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