Originally Published in The Washington Post
Jayne Orenstein - August 13, 2020
“You think [of] being a citizen as this very, very fundamental right, that if it were being taken away, that somebody would at least notify you of that fact,” said Felice Batlan, a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College who specializes in women’s legal history. “Most women did not know that they had had their citizenship taken away until something happened if they suddenly needed it.”
My great-grandmother, Ida, found out when she applied to be a witness for her husband’s naturalization in 1922. “When he applied to be a citizen, she said she was going to be a witness. He had to have a witness. And they said, ‘You can’t be. You’re not a citizen,’ ” my grandmother, Madeline Winsten, recounted.
For decades, the law stripped women of their rights — the ability to leave the country and be allowed back in, the ability to claim “mother’s pensions” and Social Security, to apply for jobs with New Deal programs, and as women gained suffrage, the ability to vote in some states.
Ethel Mackenzie was born in California and married a Scottish immigrant in 1909. When California granted women suffrage in 1911, she was denied the right to vote based on her citizenship status. She challenged the Expatriation Act before the Supreme Court, claiming it stripped her of her 14th Amendment rights, but the court upheld the law in the 1915 case, Mackenzie v. Hare.
“After the [19th] Amendment was ratified, the husband still had the right, either by refusing to change his citizenship or by adopting a new one, to decide not only whether he, but also whether his wife, should be a citizen of this country or of some other country,” Rep. John L. Cable wrote in “American Citizen Rights of Women,” a history he presented to Congress. “A married woman had absolutely no choice; in this matter she was still bound by her husband’s will.”
Cable introduced a bill in 1922 that ended the practice of expatriation through marriage. Batlan sees the Cable Act and women gaining the right to vote as directly linked.
“It was very much part of the 19th Amendment being viewed as women now have that independent political citizenship, that the household is no longer going to be unified under the male head in order to speak, for the household to the state,” Batlan said.
The Cable Act didn’t automatically grant citizenship back to the women who had lost it. They had to repatriate and go through the naturalization process by applying for citizenship. A number of those records are at the National Archives in Fort Worth. Meg Hacker was the Archives director there before she retired and worked on archiving them as one of her first projects in 1985.
“It was a tiny series of records. And I thought, well, what is this? You know, they’re all women. It says, at the top, ‘I believe I’ve lost my citizenship due to, you know, X, Y, Z reason’,” Hacker recalled.
There was a patchwork effort to fully repatriate women who lost their citizenship in the years after the Cable Act. Bills in 1931 restored some pathways back to citizenship for women, an act in 1936 allowed divorced or widowed women to reapply through a form. And in 1940, another law “provided that all women who had lost citizenship by marriage could repatriate regardless of their marital status,” Hacker wrote for an article in Prologue.
But for Asian American women, repatriation was not possible until 1931. Asians were excluded from naturalization until an amendment to the Cable Act stated “Any woman who was a citizen of the United States at birth shall not be denied naturalization under section 4 on account of her race,” Leti Volpp, a professor of law at Berkeley, told me in an email.
In the UCLA Law review, Volpp writes about Ng Fung Sing, who was born in 1898 in Washington state. Sing’s parents were from China and brought her back to the country when she was 5 years old. She married there, and after her husband died, was unable to return to the United States. Sing and many other women who married Asian immigrants or were Asian American were unable to obtain citizenship. Some remained stateless.
“We would never think that our citizenship could be taken away. Like, we’re born U.S. citizens. Our parents were U.S. citizens, which we’re absolutely clear that we are U.S. citizens,” Batlan said. “And that might not actually be true.”
My great-grandmother Ida, who died in 1990, may have never applied for her citizenship again either. My grandmother couldn’t remember if she applied, and I was not able to find a repatriation record for her.
Throughout her life, it didn’t seem to affect her ability to apply for jobs or get a passport. She worked briefly on Wall Street as a secretary after applying for a job that said “Christian-preferred,” even though she was Jewish.
“She figured her last name was Brown, she would at least try,” my grandmother recalled.
And throughout the years, even in 1920, she voted. Her ability to vote might have been easier in New York or because she was White. Some states did allow women to vote as long as they had declared an intent to naturalize, according to Volpp.
“Nobody questioned her. She said where she was born,” my grandmother said. “They obviously didn’t know [about her citizenship] when she went to vote. She voted Democrat, by the way. Always.”