The Law: Federal legislation that changed the status of married immigrant women so that not all of them would automatically obtain the citizenship of their husbands
Date: September 22, 1922
Also known as: Married Woman’s Act
Significance: In 1907 a federal immigration law was passed that specifically stated that upon marriage a woman would take the nationality of her husband. The Cable Act changed this, except for women who were American citizens and married men who were ineligible for American citizenship under federal law because of their race.
From the creation of the United States during the late eighteenth century, it was assumed that people would immigrate to the country. The first law setting standards and processes for immigration was passed in 1790. It did not mention gender when it set up the process for Europeans—and only Europeans— to immigrate to America. Although some single women did immigrate and remain single after arriving, an assumption behind the law was that women immigrants would be part of family units and be included when their husbands, who were assumed to be the heads of the households, applied for citizenship. Although this assumption became the normal interpretation of the law, it was only in 1907 when a law was passed that specifically stated that a woman would automatically become a citizen of the country of which her husband was a citizen. This rule applied to non-U.S. citizens marrying Americans and American women marrying non-Americans. When women born in the United States tried to overturn their status in federal courts, they were unsuccessful.
In most cases the undocumented citizenship status of women was not a major issue. However, with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote, documentation of the citizenship status of women became much more important. Similarly, the loss of citizenship for American women marrying foreigners became a consideration. Clarifying these issues was one of the earliest national legislative priorities for the recently created League of Women Voters. In addition, there were some cases when male immigrants were denied U.S. citizenship because it would have made citizens of wives who did not meet all the requirements for citizenship.
Effective with the signing of the Cable Act, most women kept their own citizenship regardless of their marital status. This was a major step toward the recognition of women as independent persons, rather than merely as part of family units. However, the rules for immigrant women married to American men were not the same as those for immigrant men married to American women. To obtain citizenship, immigrant women did not have to file as many forms and had a briefer length-of-residence requirement than immigrant men.
Most of the women who had lost their American citizenship between 1907 and 1922 because of their marriages to foreigners could apply for citizenship through the naturalization process. Exceptions to this rule included women married to Asians and Asian American women who had lost their American citizenship through marriage. Throughout the nineteenth century, immigration laws had increasingly restricted the ability of Asians to become U.S. citizens. Reflecting the rule in effect in the 1907 law, the Cable Act specifically excluded American women who married Asians (racially ineligible men) in the new provisions. In 1931 the law was amended to allow U.S. women who married Asians to retain their American citizenship. With other changes in immigration law having been passed since 1922, the Cable Act was formally repealed in 1936.
Donald A. Watt
See also: Asian immigrants; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Families; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1907; Intermarriage; “Mongrelization”; Naturalization Act of 1790; Women immigrants; Women’s movements.