The Expatriation Act of 1907 was intended to clarify the citizenship status of Americans who had established foreign ties. Under the provisions of this act, Americans who became citizens of another country and naturalized immigrants who lived abroad for too long would be expatriated, that is, lose their American citizenship. The minor children of naturalized citizens now would have to move to the United States before they could claim American citizenship. The most controversial portion of the act was section 3, which revoked the citizenship of any American woman who married a citizen of another country. The Expatriation Act thus established derivative citizenship for women, meaning that a woman’s citizenship was based on that of her husband, regardless of where she had been born.
In passing this act, Congress argued that it was making the laws pertaining to women’s citizenship consistent. Previously, the Naturalization Act of 1855 established that any foreign woman who married an American citizen would become a citizen, since her allegiance would shift to the nation of her husband. The Expatriation Act made the same argument about American women who married men who were citizens of other nations. Marriage to foreign men was perceived as a great threat to American society during the early 20th century, as anti-immigrant sentiment swelled in response to increases in both the number and diversity of immigrants. Thus it seems likely that this act was partially intended to deter American women from marrying foreign men and to punish those who did so. As Congressman N. E. Kendell would put it in a 1912 hearing on the Expatriation Act: “We do not want our girls to marry foreigners.”
Loss of citizenship for women had serious consequences. Expatriated women could lose their jobs. They became ineligible for most public assistance programs and could be deported from the United States or denied reentry. If a woman was deported, she ran the risk of becoming stateless, unless her husband’s nation granted her citizenship. Additional difficulties arose during World War I, when the American-born wives of German and Italian men were declared enemy aliens. If a woman married an Asian man, who could not legally become a citizen, she could not regain her American citizenship until he died. If she herself was of Asian descent, she would never be allowed to regain her birthright citizenship.
Little progress was made in the struggle against the Expatriation Act until women gained the right to vote in 1920. At that point, opponents of the act used anti-immigrant sentiment to point out that an uneducated immigrant who married an American man would be able to vote while an educated native-born woman who married a foreigner would not. For this reason, Congress in 1922 passed the
Married Women’s Independent Citizenship Act, known as the Cable Act. The law ended the practice of expatriating women who married foreign citizens, with the exception of those who married “an alien ineligible to citizenship”— in other words, Asian men. In this way, the racial policing function of the Expatriation Act remained intact, and native-born women who married Asian men continued to lose their citizenship until this practice ended in 1931 with the passage of the Second Cable Act.
See also IMMIGRATION; NATIVISM; RACE AND RACIAL
Further reading: Candice Lewis Bredbenner, A Nationality of Her Own: Wo-men, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998); Lucy Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigration and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).