Opinion

This early-1900s law revoked married women’s citizenship. Why don’t Kansans learn about it?

September 20, 2022 3:33 am

These days, we can assume that native-born residents of the United States are also citizens. That wasn't true for a time in the early 1900s. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Diana B. Carlin is a retired communication professor and author of political communication books and articles. She is a proud second-generation American from southeast Kansas.

When Kansans go to the polls Nov. 8, it will mark the 110th anniversary of Kansas women having full voting rights in statewide and federal elections — eight years before the 19th Amendment.

I don’t follow “19th Amendment” with “giving all American women the right to vote,” because it did not. It mainly enfranchised white women. Left out were Native Americans and Asians by law, African American women through suppression and some married women through citizenship revocation.

Revocation of citizenship! How can that be? The answer is a little-known law in effect between 1907 and 1922 — the Expatriation Act of 1907. The act revoked citizenship from women — and not men — who married a noncitizen. Why were only women subjected to the law? The answer is quite simply that we had not fully escaped colonial-era coverture laws that considered a woman’s legal rights and identity to be subsumed by her husband. In other words, she was civilly dead. Thus, a woman who married a foreigner was assumed to profess loyalty to her husband’s king and country and take on his citizenship.

A more important question may be, why did we not learn about this law in school? Fortunately, the National Archives is correcting the omission with a display and article found online.

My grandmothers were among the disenfranchised. They were 22 and 21 in 1920 but ineligible to vote. My paternal grandmother was born in Chicopee, Kansas, and my maternal grandmother, who arrived in the U.S. as a child, was naturalized with her parents. When the law was rescinded in 1922 through the Cable Act, which partially reversed the 1907 law, their citizenship was not restored. They had to go through naturalization.

I knew none of this until a few years ago, when something in a political conversation caused my mother to impart these facts. Since then, I found one of my grandmother’s naturalization papers and was amused that her prior citizenship was listed as “Italian” just like my grandfather’s, even though she never set foot in the country and all other papers listed her birthplace as Kansas.

As I grew up, election day was almost sacred in my family. My father, a Navy and World War II veteran, took the day off to tend to my sisters and me while my mother worked on the election board. While we were in school, he took my grandparents to vote. When we got home from school, we went out to eat and then took dinner to my mother.

– Diana B. Carlin

As I grew up, election day was almost sacred in my family. My father, a Navy and World War II veteran, took the day off to tend to my sisters and me while my mother worked on the election board. While we were in school, he took my grandparents to vote. When we got home from school, we went out to eat and then took dinner to my mother.

While my father voted, he gave us sample ballots on thin blue or yellow paper so that we could also “vote.” For those who experienced a loss of a right — even temporarily — and those who lived through Nazism and fascism, the importance of voting and civic engagement was not questioned.

Several weeks ago, I spoke to a group of high school students attending a civic leadership workshop on the importance of civic engagement. I told my grandmothers’ story as an example of why we cannot take our democracy and freedoms for granted.

I always start such a speech with a series of questions and a show of hands: How many of you drive a car? How many of you plan on post-secondary education? How many of you worry about the cost? How many of you have a job? How many of you eat in restaurants or drink water? Of course, every hand goes up.

I then ask what all of these questions have in common, and answer that elected members of a legislative body affect all of them. Politics touches every aspect of our daily lives. Too often we forget that it isn’t just the big issues that affect us, but everything including the air we breathe and the water we drink — assuming there is water in the future through good political decisions.

My husband and I were in Germany recently, and the tour guides who showed Holocaust memorials made a point that all German students are required to take a course on the Holocaust so that it never happens again. Museums in Germany do not omit key facts about Nazi atrocities. As an educator and author who believes in providing historical context, including what I did not learn in school, I am troubled by our country’s desire to hide the darker parts of our history, unlike the Germans. I am also troubled that too many young people are not learning about government in ways that help them understand how politicians affect every aspect of their lives.

My activism came from my family’s example, and that is where it needs to begin. Take your children or grandchildren with you to vote. Explain what the stakes are if we don’t assume our responsibility to guard democracy at the ballot box as informed citizens who can separate facts from fiction — something that high school and college debate taught me and that should be taught to every student through media literacy or critical thinking activities.

When we vote and get our “I voted in ___ County” stickers, we also have an option to take a sticker that says, “I voted for a Vet”. I always pick one up to honor my father and numerous veteran family members and friends. Since learning about my grandmothers, I silently think that I am also voting for them.

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Diana B. Carlin
Diana B. Carlin

Diana B. Carlin is professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University. She taught a speechwriting course at the University of Kansas and a course on presidential speechwriters for KU’s Osher Institute. She has also taught courses on women and politics at the University of Kansas and is co-author of "Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced," and book chapters on Martha Washington, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

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