In the US, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, why did primarily the men only get naturalized? Why didn't women get naturalized? I've heard some say it's because the citizenship status of the man is all that mattered but censuses still recorded the men as naturalized and the women as aliens, so surely it must have mattered to some extent.


Books have been written about this subject, so I'll just summarize what I think are the key points.

  • Historically (and some might argue the same is true today), there are relatively few "benefits" of naturalization in the US. One of the primary benefits was the right to vote. As women could not vote in the 1800s, there was no real reason for them to become naturalized.

  • Naturalization also was not free. There were (are) considerable court fees involved in the process. If there is no perceived benefit (such as voting rights), it is unlikely women would go the cost of naturalization.

  • Naturalization laws were very complex and changed many times throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marital status was an essential consideration. A married woman in the nineteenth century was considered to have the citizenship of her husband, therefore she would not "get naturalized" in the same way that men would.

For further reading see, for example, Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940.


Historian Marian L. Smith has written two superb articles for Prologue, published by the US National Archives, which discuss the changes in US Naturalization laws and how the changes in the laws affect our search for records.

Before the passage of the Cable Act in 1922, when women's naturalization could be derived from their fathers or husbands, some women did apply in their own names. So the archivists at NARA say we should still look for records -- the information found in records can vary, and you can't tell in advance what you are likely to find. It helps to have an awareness of the laws and social history of the day (e.g. the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women suffrage, or the requirements of the Homestead Act.)

Even if you can't visit the archives yourself, presentations made by the archivists can give you a deeper understanding of the nature of the records and what they might hold. See:

One obvious reason to naturalize after 1917 is to avoid being rounded up as an enemy combatant. If your female immigrant ancestors did not naturalize, they might be found in record collections of Alien Registrations. See these posts from Judy G. Russell on her blog The Legal Genealogist:

On 9 July 2015, FamilySearch's US / Canada team presented an online webinar on US Naturalizaton records by Danielle Batson, AG®, MLS. The handout “Why didn’t my ancestor naturalize?”: Navigating U.S. Naturalization Records is available for download. It gives a timeline of the changes in the Naturalization laws, outlines the naturalization process, gives a summary of what information might be found in the records for different eras, and summarizes where one can find clues about naturalization in the census.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy