3 Replies Latest reply on Oct 13, 2020 11:08 AM by Cara Jensen

    How can my great-grandmother have no citizenship?

    Franz Baudrexl Newbie

      I have a document of my great-grandmother´s return voyage by ship from Germany to the USA from 1932. There NONE is written in the column for nationality. What identity cards or other documents did a stateless person have? Did these documents have a photograph? I´ve been looking for a photo of my great-grandmother for a long time. My great-grandmother immigrated to the USA in 1903 but she never applied for citizenship. Can someone please give me some information?

        • Re: How can my great-grandmother have no citizenship?
          Sabine Gorgas Wayfarer

          Hello Franz,


          could you provide your great-grantmother's name with a year of birth or birthplace?  Some more information about her would help to provide better information or to search for her in the different sources.



          • Re: How can my great-grandmother have no citizenship?
            Tamie Dehler Newbie

            The laws covering women's citizenship have changed over the years.  In 1903, your great grandmother would not have applied for citizenship in her own right, because she couldn't, but would have become a citizen only if her husband applied and was was naturalized or was already a citizen.  This changed in 1907 and again with the Cable Act of 1922.

            Here is part of an article I wrote that outlines how a woman's citizenship status changed over the years.


            Early laws passed in 1790, 1795, and 1802 defined citizenship for “free white persons” only and did not mention gender.  By 1804 widows and unmarried women could become citizens in their own name, but since women did not have the right to vote it was often not worth the court fees she would have to file for naturalization.  A married woman’s status was tied to her husband’s in that a foreign woman could become naturalized in her own right after marriage to a US citizen.  Also, if an immigrant man had filed a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen and then died before filing his final papers, his alien widow and children could go to court and take the oath of allegiance immediately and become citizens.  If, as a researcher, you find a female ancestor taking the oath during this time period without having filed the other prerequisite papers, she may have been a recent widow.


            A law was passed on February 10, 1855, that further tied a woman’s citizenship status to that of her husband with the notion of derivative citizenship.  An immigrant woman who married an immigrant man immediately became a citizen when her husband took the oath of allegiance.  Her proof of citizenship was her marriage record and her husband’s naturalization record.  In addition, an alien woman who married a US citizen immediately became a citizen herself upon her marriage.  Her proof of citizenship was her marriage record and her husband’s birth record (if it existed).  An alien wife of an unnaturalized husband could not become a citizen in her own right, even if she wanted to, because a woman’s citizenship was linked to her husband’s status.  Another aspect of the 1855 law was that the alien wife attained immediate citizenship upon her husband’s naturalization, regardless of where she was residing at the time.  Thus, if the husband had come alone to the US to work, then met the residency requirement and became a citizen before sending for his family, his wife and children would arrive in the US as full citizens when he sent for them.


            Under this 1855 law, and up until the 1906 change in naturalization procedure, a wife might not be mentioned in the husband’s naturalization paperwork, even though she had indeed been granted citizenship along with him.  After September 27, 1906, with the advent of more detailed “final papers,” the wife who had attained citizenship with her husband would be named in the paperwork.


            But women could also lose their US citizenship based on the citizenship status of their husbands.  Between 1866 and 1907, a woman who was born in the US and who subsequently married a foreign man was still considered an American unless she  traveled outside of the United States.  At that point, she lost her US citizenship and was considered the nationality of her foreign husband.


            A married woman’s citizenship gradually became more and more tied to the status of her husband, and this was complete when the Expatriation Act of 1907 passed.  Sections 3 and 4 of that act were directed specifically toward married women. Prior to this law, an American woman who married a foreign national would lose her citizenship only if she subsequently traveled outside of the US.  But for any marriage that occurred after the date of the Expatriation Act (March 2, 1907), a woman acquired the citizenship and nationality status of her husband, period.


            An American-born woman who married an alien man immediately forfeited her citizenship and took on her husband’s nationality.  If her immigrant spouse later became a citizen, then she as his wife regained her American citizenship.  If the immigrant husband chose not to become a naturalized American citizen, then his wife was ineligible to regain her citizenship while married to him.  In addition, American-born women who married foreign men who were racially not eligible to become citizens (for example, Asians) could never regain their citizenship while married to that man.


            This Act presented a number of problems for women.  Some women had filed land entries under the Homestead Act in their own names, but were married to immigrant husbands.  Due to their marriage to a foreigner, they had lost their American nationality.  But in order to receive the final deed to the property, it was necessary to be an American citizen.  Some local judges ignored the law and went ahead and granted citizenship to these women for the purpose of acquiring their property deeds.


            Another problem was divorce.  In some states an alien woman could not file for divorce, or indeed file any legal action in a court.  In these cases, the women might go ahead and file a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen, even though it might not lead to citizenship.  Some women were successful in acquiring naturalization, only to have it revoked by another court.


            In 1920 women obtained the right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment.  This situation began to interfere with some men’s naturalizations.  Because the courts would be granting citizenship to a wife with her husband, some naturalization judges began to refuse to naturalize an immigrant man if his spouse did not also meet all of the eligibility requirements (such as speaking English), because the wife would then have the right to vote.


            At this point in history, legislators decided to correct the citizenship problems caused for women by the Expatriation Act; they therefore passed the Married Women’s Act (also known as the Cable Act) of 1922.  With its passage, nationality and citizenship were tied to each individual woman–not derived through her husband.  Immigrant women could apply for and obtain citizenship in their own right, regardless of the status of their husbands.  An American woman could marry a foreigner and not automatically lose her citizenship.


            For marriages that had occurred before the September 22, 1922, passage of the Cable Act, the wife of a naturalized alien could “fast track” and immediately file her own Petition for Naturalization to become an American citizen in her own name.  But if her immigrant husband had not naturalized prior to that date, she had to file a Declaration of Intention and start at the beginning of the citizenship process to become a citizen in her own right.


            For more details, see https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/summer/women-and-naturalization-1.html.

            • Re: How can my great-grandmother have no citizenship?
              Cara Jensen Scout

              Dear Mr. Baudrexl,


              Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!


              Most people who ended up stateless were in that position due to conflicting international laws.  For example, if someone naturalized in the US, but then lost their citizenship and their country of origin did not automatically reclaim them, they were left with no country claiming them. Women could end up stateless due to their husband’s U.S. citizenship status prior to 1922.


              The Expatriation Act of 1907 was an attempt to get international laws in line, but countries continued to change their laws about citizenship (including the U.S.) into the 1930s and beyond, so confusion and stateless cases persisted.


              It is possible that your great-grandmother could have obtained a Reentry Permit or a Visa to come back to the U.S.  Both records may include photographs. The immigrant visas and associated documentation accumulated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) between July 1, 1924, and March 31, 1944, were maintained in INS Visa Files.  Beginning April 1, 1944, the Visa Files series was closed and all new immigrant visas were filed in Alien Files (A-Files).   Please consult NARA’s web page on Alien Files (A-Files) for more information. 


              If your great-grandmother was still alive and in the U.S. during the 1940s, we suggest that you search for her name in the National Archives Catalog to see if any Alien Files (A-Files) appear.  If not, an Index Search through USCIS Genealogy Program will identify any INS records that exist.  You may order any records through the same site.


              We hope this is helpful. Best of luck with your family research!


              [Information provided by Elizabeth Burnes, Subject Matter Expert]