- Gender, Citizenship, and the Law
Scholarly explorations of the gendered nature of US citizenship began in earnest around twenty years ago with important work from Linda K. Kerber, Nancy Cott, Alice Kessler-Harris, Nancy Isenberg, and Candice Bredbenner, among others.1 The three monographs reviewed here remind us that the struggle to understand the complex dynamics among state power, women's legal status, and women's sovereignty are far from complete. Each book helps to further our knowledge of how various groups of women have interacted with local, state, and national governments, particularly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Helen Irving begins with the issue of married women's nationality. By the early twentieth century, in nearly every country around the world, women lost their citizenship when they married noncitizen men. In some cases, the husband's country automatically granted them citizenship, but when this did not occur, they were rendered stateless. The practice originated, as far as Irving can document, in France under the Napoleonic Code. It spread to Britain with the Naturalization Act of 1870 and to the United States with the Expatriation Act of 1907. At issue, according to Irving, was geopolitical modernization, in which the world order based on nation states demanded individual allegiance to one state and one state only.
The practice of coverture—derived from English common law, in which a woman's legal, civil, political, and economic personhood was subsumed under that of her husband—dictated that her citizenship status [End Page 139] be subsumed as well. A married woman's primary political relationship was not to the state but to her spouse. She thus only had a legal identity to the extent that he did. Her allegiance to her husband was assumed to take precedence over any allegiance to her government; if her husband was a citizen of a different country, a married woman would be expected to transfer her loyalty to that country.
Irving documents the extensive and varied effects of marital denaturalization, as she calls it. She cites, for instance, letters to public officials from women applying for passports in which they explained their circumstances. Some women were unaware of such laws and did not realize they had been expatriated. Because it was not unusual for a newly married couple to stay in the wife's country of birth, particularly if her husband had come there for economic opportunities, upon marriage many women immediately became aliens in their own country. And during wartime, as Irving demonstrates in chapter four, the effects of marital denaturalization could be even more harsh, especially if a woman married a man who by nationality was considered an "enemy alien." Stories of women affected by this practice help illuminate one of Irving's key arguments. "The wartime cases," she writes, "reveal what is essential to understanding citizenship generally: it attaches to human lives and shapes their circumstances in ways that are profoundly existential, and that go well beyond the functional entitlements or political rights often associated with citizenship" (149).
Despite the protests of individual women and women's rights organizations in multiple countries, the practice took several decades to disappear. The first big step was the US Cable Act of 1922, which ended marital denaturalization for women whose husbands were eligible for US citizenship (thus excluding women who married men from China, Japan, or Korea). Expatriation laws remained on the books in Britain and the British dominions, however, until after World War II. The Hague Nationality Convention of 1930 aimed to rectify the problem of married...