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Women And Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940: Part 2

by Marian L. Smith

By the late nineteenth century, marital status was the primary factor determining a woman's ability to naturalize. But other factors might have influenced a judge's decision to grant or deny a woman's naturalization petition. Some judges seemed unaware of legal naturalization requirements and regularly granted citizenship to persons racially ineligible, who had not lived in the United States the requisite five years, or did not display "good moral character." It may be that these judges also granted citizenship to women regardless of their husband's nationality. Women's naturalization records dating from the 1880s and 1890s can be found, for example, among the records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Record Group 21), though these records do not indicate the women's marital status.

After 1907, marriage determined a woman's nationality status completely. Under the act of March 2, 1907, all women acquired their husband's nationality upon any marriage occurring after that date. This changed nothing for immigrant women, but U.S.-born citizen women could now lose their citizenship by any marriage to any alien. Most of these women subsequently regained their U.S. citizenship when their husbands naturalized. However, those who married Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or other men racially ineligible to naturalize forfeited their U.S. citizenship. Similarly, many former U.S. citizen women found themselves married to men who were ineligible to citizenship for some other reason or who simply refused to naturalize. Because the courts held that a husband's nationality would always determine that of the wife, a married woman could not legally file for naturalization.[6]

There were exceptions to the 1907 law's prohibition against the naturalization of married women. Good examples can be found in the West and upper Midwest, where individuals were still filing entries under the Homestead Act in the early twentieth century. Many women filed homestead entries, either while married to aliens or prior to marrying an immigrant. Later, when they petitioned for the citizenship necessary to obtain final deed to the property, some judges granted their petitions despite their marital status. In these cases the judges held that if the government intended to deny the women citizenship it should not have allowed them to file entries with the General Land Office. In other homestead-related cases, the granting of citizenship to women seemed less a matter of principle and more a method, adopted locally, to acquire additional property.[7] Women's inability to naturalize during these years did not prevent them from trying. Many women filed declarations of intention to become citizens and may have even managed to file petitions before being denied. At least one woman's petition came before the court because she did not declare her marital status. Often women had no choice but to file at least a declaration of intent. In some states aliens could not file for divorce or other court proceedings. An alien woman seeking divorce might file the declaration simply to facilitate filing a separate suit.[8] Declarations of intention and petitions filed by women should remain on file with other court naturalization records.

A few women successfully naturalized in these years, but they might have subsequently had their naturalization certificates canceled. Finnish-born Hilma Ruuth, for example, filed her declaration of intention to become a citizen in the U.S. District Court at Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 1, 1903. In 1910 Hilma married Jaakob Esala, another Finnish immigrant, and in the same year she filed her petition for naturalization with the district court of St. Louis County, at Virginia, Minnesota. Her petition bore her married name, Hilma Esala, and the U.S. Naturalization examiner in St. Paul filed a formal objection to her petition under the 1907 law, which prohibited the naturalization of women married to aliens. The county judge overruled this objection and granted Hilma U.S. citizenship on November 19, 1910. The naturalization examiner responded by passing the case to the U.S. district attorney, who then filed suit in U.S. District Court on January 24, 1911, for cancellation of the certificate. The case was decided on July 11 at the Federal Building in Duluth, where Hilma's citizenship was canceled and she had to surrender her certificate of naturalization.[9] Federal court records of certificate cancellation proceedings are, like federal court naturalization records, found in Record Group 21. Unless there is a name index to the court's records, researchers will need to know the court's specific name (i.e., U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit Court) and location, the type of case, and case number.

The era when a woman's nationality was determined through that of her husband neared its end when this legal provision began to interfere with men's ability to naturalize. This unforeseen situation arose in and after 1918 when various states began approving an amendment to grant women suffrage (and which became the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920). Given that women who derived citizenship through a husband's naturalization would now be able to vote, some judges refused to naturalize men whose wives did not meet eligibility requirements, including the ability to speak English. The additional examination of each applicant's wife delayed already crowded court dockets, and some men who were denied citizenship began to complain that it was unfair to let their wives' nationality interfere with their own.[10]

Happily, Congress was at work and on September 22, 1922, passed the Married Women's Act, also known as the Cable Act. This 1922 law finally gave each woman a nationality of her own. No marriage since that date has granted U.S. citizenship to any alien woman nor taken it from any U.S.-born women who married an alien eligible to naturalization.[11] Under the new law women became eligible to naturalize on (almost) the same terms as men. The only difference concerned those women whose husbands had already naturalized. If her husband was a citizen, the wife did not need to file a declaration of intention. She could initiate naturalization proceedings with a petition alone (one-paper naturalization). A woman whose husband remained an alien had to start at the beginning, with a declaration of intention. It is important to note that women who lost citizenship by marriage and regained it under Cable Act naturalization provisions could file in any naturalization court--regardless of her residence.[12]

Hosford Karen Marie Hosford had a confusing naturalization problem concerning her husband's declaration of intention and her right to U.S. citizenship. (NARA, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85)

By this time, confusion over women's citizenship, and how a woman might regain U.S. citizenship, had become common. The case of Karen Marie Hosford is a good example. She was born in Denmark and immigrated to Canada, where she met and married Grant Hosford in 1911. He was a U.S. citizen, and under U.S. law Karen became a U.S. citizen through their marriage. Then Grant naturalized as a Canadian citizen in 1915, and Karen, too, thereby lost her U.S. citizenship. The couple soon migrated to the United States. After a few years Grant decided to regain his U.S. citizenship and filed a declaration of intention at his local naturalization court. Unfortunately, Grant died in 1923, not yet naturalized, and left Karen an alien widow. At that point she could petition for naturalization based on his declaration, citing the original 1804 act which gave her that right. But the 1922 act also gave her the option to file her own declaration and begin the naturalization process in her own right.[13]


[6]Ibid.; see also Rule 24(k) of the Naturalization Laws and Regulations, Feb. 15, 1917 (1917), p. 33.

[7]Report of Robert A. Coleman, Chief Naturalization Examiner, St. Paul, MN, to Richard K. Campbell, Commissioner of Naturalization, Washington, DC, July 1, 1910, p. 3, entry 26, box 1698, file 457177, pt. I, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter RG 85, NARA).

[8]Robert A. Coleman, Chief Naturalization Examiner, St. Paul, MN, to Commissioner of Naturalization, Washington, DC, Feb. 2, 1924, entry 26, box 399, file 20/2, RG 85, NARA. See also "Must be Naturalized under Married Surname of Husband," in Kansas, Citizenship of the United States of America, pp. 70-71.

[9]INS C-File 154992 (including naturalization records of Hilma Esala, District Court of St. Louis County, at Virginia, MN, Nov. 19, 1910, and court decree of the U.S. Circuit Court, District of Minnesota, Fifth Division, July 25, 1911, and other correspondence).

[10]Sundry correspondence relative to courts requiring wife of petitioners to attend court at final hearing, 1919-1922, entry 26, box 1475, file 3929, RG 85, NARA.

[11]Until 1931, women still expatriated themselves by marriage to an alien racially ineligible to naturalize.

[12]Luella Gettys, The Law of Citizenship in the United States (1936) p. 50.

[13]Case of Karen Marie Hosford, entry 26, file 23/3444, RG 85, NARA.

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.

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