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A matter of time

It’s no secret that, during much of history, women — and particularly married women — have been disadvantaged by the law.

The British common law system followed in most of the English colonies around the world and incorporated into their laws after each gained independence was pretty much designed to hand all kinds of control over women’s lives over to the men.

That did begin to change with time, and that’s why a question that landed in The Legal Genealogist‘s email box is all a matter of time.


It’s the question of citizenship, here in the United States.

The scenario posed by reader Becky Hall is a common one for many of our immigrant families. “The groom received his US citizenship in 1914. He marries in 1916,” she wrote. “Does the bride immediately become a citizen or does she have to wait a certain amount of time, or does she have to submit her own citizenship petition?”

Great question — because it’s one that would have been answered differently if the timing had been just a little different.

Initially, the idea was that wives and children acquired citizenship either through their own birth in the United States or by deriving it through the naturalization of the husband and father. The law didn’t quite say that, however, so in 1855 it was clarified.

That statute said a non-citizen woman who was herself eligible for citizenship who married a man who was a citizen — native-born or naturalized — automatically derived citizenship on marriage: “any woman who might lawfully be naturalized under the existing laws, married, or who shall be married to a citizen of the United States, shall be deemed and taken to be a citizen.”1

Simple enough, right?

You don’t think Congress left that alone, do you?

Of course not.

First, in 1906, they said the wife or child of a man who was naturalizing would only derive citizenship if specifically named on the man’s petition for citizenship.2

Then, in 1907, Congress said even American-born-citizen women would automatically acquire the citizenship of their husbands.3 So, for example, my grandfather’s Texas-born sister became a German citizen when she married in Texas in 1912, because her husband had taken out his initial papers to naturalize but hadn’t finished the process yet.4

Well, that didn’t go over very well, so the whole system was revised in 1922 to provide that everybody’s citizenship was individual. Non-citizen women didn’t automatically derive citizenship by marrying an American man, and citizen women didn’t lose citizenship by marrying a non-citizen man.5

Which means we need to pay close attention to the timing to answer a question like Becky’s.

The marriage there was in 1916, between a naturalized American citizen man and a non-citizen woman. Under that 1907 act, she automatically took the citizenship of her husband. No action on her part was required.

Had the marriage been just a few years later, after the 1922 act was passed, she would not have derived citizenship simply because of the marriage, and would have needed to proceed with her own individual naturalization.

His and her citizenship.

It’s all a matter of time.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “His and hers,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 30 Sep 2021).


  1. §2, “An Act to secure the Right of Citizenship to Children of Citizens of the United States born out of the Limits thereof,” 10 Stat. 604 (10 Feb 1855).
  2. §4, “An Act To establish a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and to provide for a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States,” 34 Stat. 596 (29 June 1906).
  3. “An Act In reference to the expatriation of citizens and their protection abroad,” 34 Stat. 1228 (2 March 1907).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Becoming unAmerican,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Sep 2016 ( : accessed 30 Sep 2021). She ended up having to be naturalized to regain her American citizenship. Sigh…
  5. “An act Relative to the naturalization and citizenship of married women,” 42 Stat. 1021 (22 September 1922).
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