A woman’s nationality

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Between 2 March 1907 and 22 September 1922, the Expatriation Act of 1907 required a woman who married a foreigner to take the nationality of her husband, and therefore she lost her own citizenship. The Cable Act (also known as the “Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act” or the “Married Women’s Act”) passed on 22 September 1922; it repealed the 1907 law and thus severed a woman’s marital status from her husband’s nationality. During the years between 1907 and 1922, an American-born woman who married an alien eligible for citizenship could still regain her own citizenship, but she had to go through the entire process of naturalization as if she were a newly arrived immigrant, and therefore had to provide witnesses for her character as well as take the Oath of Allegiance. Even after the Cable Act was enacted, a woman who was married to an alien and had lost her citizenship during the Expatriation Act still had to go through the full naturalization process.

It was an act in 1936 which allowed a woman who had lost her citizenship through marriage, a “marital expatriate,” to apply for repatriation provided that she was no longer married to her alien spouse – whether through death or divorce – by submitting her U.S. birth, marriage, and divorce records (or her husband’s death certificate), then taking an Oath of Allegiance. Most female repatriations took place after 1936. Then, on 2 July 1940, an act allowed all women who lost their citizenship by marriage to repatriate – regardless of their marital status. But they still had to take an oath of allegiance and swear that they had continually resided in the United States since their marriage.[i]

Women could repatriate at any District Court, and these repatriation applications are part of Record Group 21 and housed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) branch that would hold records for that particular District Court’s location.

As an example of an exceptional circumstance, a woman who was born in Iowa in 1891 married a man from Lithuania in 1915; he died in 1941. Later, in 1965, she attempted to obtain a passport. Because she did not realize that she lost her citizenship, she had to repatriate in order to do so. Since she was applying for citizenship in 1965, current laws required that she had to have an Alien Registration Number. An “A-number” is a unique personal identifier assigned to a non-citizen, and an A-File became the official file for all immigration and naturalization records created or consolidated for every immigrant who arrived after 1 April 1944 or naturalized after 1 April 1956 (and for immigration law enforcement matters.)[ii]

“I lost … United States citizenship solely by reason by my marriage…”

My example’s A-File included the document “Application to Take Oath of Allegiance and Form Such Oath.” Because she did not have her birth record and could not obtain it, she had to submit a letter from the town registrar stating that the birth record did not exist. Instead, she submitted her baptismal and marriage records. She also had to complete the “Preliminary Form to Take Oath of Allegiance.”

A section of this document to fill out read: “I lost, or believe that I lost, United States citizenship solely by reason by my marriage on (date) to (spouse) then, an alien, a citizen or subject of (country of nativity) my marital status with such person was terminated.” Note, this example is not typical, but if the repatriation application is part of an A-File, this file may also include vital records, proof of residency, correspondence, and other documents that may not be available elsewhere.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and NARA signed an agreement on 3 June 2009 to make the Alien Files a permanent series of records, transferred to NARA custody one hundred years after the immigrant’s year of birth. As of 1 August 2012, the National Archives at Kansas City had received more than 400,000 A-Files for individuals who were born in or before 1910.

A side note: my in-laws married in 1961 in Massachusetts, and my mother-in-law, born in Connecticut, went to change her voter registration to reflect her new surname. My father-in-law immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1950s and was not yet an American citizen at that point. A person from an older generation handling my mother-in-law’s registration at first told her that she might have lost her citizenship due to her marriage, but after checking with someone, told her that she hadn’t.



[i] https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2014/spring/citizenship.pdf

[ii] https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/genealogy/files-numbered-below-8-million#WhatAreAFiles

About Nancy Bernard

Nancy holds a certificate from the Boston University Genealogical Research program. She has a master’s degree in history and media study from SUNY University of Buffalo, where she focused on American cultural history and writing and producing documentary videos. She also has a B.A. from Hamilton College. She has interned at the American Jewish Historical Society, now at NEHGS, as well as the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA. Her areas of interest include New England and New York history and researching house histories and the families who lived in those homes.

13 thoughts on “A woman’s nationality

  1. Did the wives of immigrants automatically become citizens when their husbands completed the naturalization process?

    1. I have my grandmother’s American citizenship document, which lists her nationality as Norwegian, although she never stepped foot in that country. I also have my Norway-born grandfather’s document. They must have filed separately, although I don’t know if she had to take a test.

  2. A woman’s loss of her American citizenship by marrying a non-American long pre-dates this law and was the case in the 19c. Consuelo Vanderbilt tells an interesting story in her autobiography, ‘The Glitter and the Gold’. Her mother forced her to marry the Duke of Marlborough. After many unhappy years, she divorced him. She then remarried–for love–but when she tried to return to the US, she found she had lost her citizenship. To make things worse, she had no birth cert–not many people bothered with them when she was born abt 1877. The story has a happy ending but is an example of what women, even the very rich and very famous, had to put up with.

  3. Just a reflection of the past AND present silliness; and might I also say, stupidity, of some of those running our US government. I literally cringe.

  4. An interesting aspect in the history of society’s view of women, either as individuals with rights or not. Most curious is that these laws, vestiges of a much earlier time, were passed concurrently with the suffragette movement, for women’s voting rights. It would be interesting to chart all the various rights, like these, and property ownership, over the 19-20th centuries, to watch the progress. A minor sidelight: am amused when even today I see an older woman (and I am 76) sign her checks as “Mrs. HIs Name.”

    1. Or worse an obituary listed as Mrs. John Smith…..no first name, no maiden, no parents.

      1. Yes, I found a case that amazed me. The daughters of a Pennsylvania woman who knew only that she came from Maine.

  5. My grandmother (born in Colorado) loss her citizenship in 1910 when she married my danish grandfather. She is listed in the 1920 Idaho census as an alien. My grandmother died young in 1926 without regaining her citizenship. My grandfather remained a danish citizen until his death in 1975.

  6. My grandmother lost her citizenship when she married my Finnish grandfather. She had to reapply to be an American and take the test even though she was born here!

  7. I’ve never heard this before… My great aunt married her alien husband in 1912, he was ineligible for naturalization because he was Japanese and there were many restrictions on Asian-aliens at that time. If she lost her citizenship I will guess she never knew it. The 1920, 1930 or 1940 census do NOT reflect her being an alien. I know they went to Canada at least once on vacation, but I suppose back in the 30’s few questions were asked when crossing the border. I know she voted, they owned a home and farm land, too. (I’ve also read there were restrictions on Asian-aliens owning property.) Eventually the laws changed and my great uncle became a citizen in 1954. He’d been here nearly 50 years and lived 20 more.

  8. My husbands grandparents married in 1870. He was a citizen of English Canada and she was a US citizen (at least one of her ancestors had been in the revolution at Bunker Hill). When I was researching his date of naturalization at the National Archives in Waltham MA I was told by the person working there that she lost her citizenship when they got married. He knew the dates involved since it was not on microfillm and I had to go into a special room to look the data up in books. This predates the 1907 date that you mention in your article.

  9. Would have made my NYC native friend a citizen of Ecuador where her second husband was from .. . .then she got divorced so I guess they would have switched her back leaving her kids from the first marriage in some sort of citizenship limbo land. . .glad this is gone.

  10. Here is another example. Actress Muriel Greil was born in 1897 in New Jersey. Muriel’s mother was born in New York and her father, born in Germany, became a naturalized U.S. citizen between 1900 an 1910, according to U.S. census records.

    Muriel married Canadian Broadway actor Charles James Meakins in 1918, thereby losing her citizenship. Muriel applied for U.S. citizenship on July 27, 1925. Muriel’s application states that she is an actress living at 15 Christopher Street in New York and a subject of George V, King of Great Britain and Ireland. She signed the U.S. oath of allegiance on 25 January, 1926. Her petition is stamped “Denied Feb 28 1927 Lack of Prosecution.” An image of her application is available on Ancestry.com at http://www.ancestry.com/interactive/2499/31301_167677-00567/4107150.

    On March 13, 1930, Muriel and her mother arrived in the port of Tilbury, Essex, England, traveling from Sydney. Both are listed as U.S. citizens on the ship’s passenger list (www.ancestry.com/interactive/1518/30807_A000933-00509/19217557).

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