For the most part, up until the year 1922 in American history, women were rarely mentioned in immigration legislation, except for the Act of 1875. That year Congress dealt with the Chinese prostitution issue. United States culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries considered women under the identity of their husband. It was presumed that any woman would eventually marry and her identity would be tied to her husband. The result of this attitude was a 1907 immigration law requiring women assume the nationality and citizenship status of their husbands upon marriage. This meant that even women born on U.S. soil who married a non-U.S. citizen lost their United States citizenship status. If her husband’s country of origin was involved in a war with the U.S., she may be considered an “enemy alien” and stripped of property and her employment. This happened to scores of women who were married to German and Italian born men when the country entered World War I. Around $25 million in property nationwide was confiscated by the U.S. Although women may not have felt this was fair and desired to have control of their own identity, there wasn’t anything they could do about it until the law changed.
Most immigrant women were discriminated against because the courts would usually not naturalize an alien woman who was married to a foreign born husband. The husband had to become naturalized and then some courts would automatically classify his wife as naturalized as well as any children between them. A woman’s identity was her husband. This also worked the other way around. If a female U.S. citizen married a man who was not a U.S. citizen, his status became her status. In 1907 the Expatriation Act stripped female U.S. citizens of their status if they married foreign born men. The spirit of this law was racism as reflected in the words of Iowa’s Republican Representative Nathan Kendall who stated, “We do not want our girls to marry foreigners.”
There were some legally savvy women who managed to circumvent this technicality and also obtain their own personal property by way of the Homestead Act, thus maintaining their legal status of U.S. citizen even though they married a foreign born husband. However, not every woman was successful choosing this route. The reality for women in the early history of America was that society discriminated against women in general, and even more harshly discriminated against white women who married another race. If the gringa had faced this national attitude after meeting her Peruvian caveman, she would have gladly traded her country for her man.
Prior to 1907, there was no specific legal language written into immigration laws regarding women. Immigrating women then could only hope in their case being handled by a sympathetic court because each court applied their own interpretation of current immigration laws. From 1790 until 1802 immigration laws specified “free white persons” as having the right to the naturalization process without gender determination. It was the social practice of that time to interpret “persons” as being male and this male represented the females of his household. The only women specifically mentioned by immigration laws were the widows of men who had qualified and applied for citizenship but died before the process was complete or foreign born women who became citizens when they married American men.
On August 18, 1920, the power of the women’s suffrage movement resulted in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave women the right to vote. It is no coincidence that within two years of this event politicians realized they were going to have to listen to the voices of half the country’s constituents. The Married Women’s Act of 1922 (also known as the Cable Act, the Married Women’s Independent Citizenship Act or the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act) is the second monument to the empowerment of women of that generation. Section three stated, “That a woman citizen of the United States shall not cease to be a citizen of the United States by reason of her marriage after the passage of this Act, unless she makes a formal renunciation of her citizenship.” A woman who had lost her citizenship status from 1907 until 1922, because of marriage to a foreign man, could apply for naturalization. The only exception was if they married a man who was ineligible for American citizenship because of his race, such as Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino. However, nine years later, on March 3, 1931, an amendment allowed these women to finally maintain their U.S. citizenship status. At last, women were a recognized class of American citizens in their own right.
Prior to 1920, a woman’s citizenship status was not considered important because they could not vote and any property they owned became their husband’s. This was the legal practice of “coverture”, a British legal principle imported with the founding fathers. The Nineteenth Amendment changed that. In order to vote, a woman had to be a citizen. It was now more important than ever that a woman retain her individual identity no matter who she chose to marry. Legislators who wanted or needed the female vote were going to have to respond with legislation to protect the citizenship status of their electorate. Again, we see immigration reform motivated not by the minds of lawmakers opening and maturing with a new-found respect for a woman’s right to be treated equal but rather by the desire to maintain power by pandering to a class of people who will respond to their actions favorably and give them their votes. So, in 1922 legislators gave this newly empowered voting class what they wanted. A woman’s nationality was her own with naturalization terms equal to that of men.
The United States had come a long way from the society of our founding fathers. The dreams of the wives of those founding fathers had finally come true. In 1876, in a letter Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, President John Adams, she stated, “I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.” Even earlier than Abigail Adam’s letter, in 1790, Judith Sargent Murray, an American poet and advocate for women’s rights, wrote “men generate inequality and formulate rules of society for their own benefit with no regard for women’s needs”. Once again the true history of the United States reveals a nation originally designed to be a male dominated, capitalist society, preserving the racial superiority of the white majority and serving national and international economic and political interests rather than the needs of the women and non-white races within the country. None of this surprises the gringa.