04 August 2012

Derivative Citizenship

'When Women Were Aliens: The Neglected History of Derivative Marital Citizenship' (Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 12/47) by Helen Irving notes that
Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, in virtually every country in the world, women who married foreign men were stripped of their citizenship, and turned into aliens in their own country. Marital denaturalization laws were supported by the international community until well after the Second World War: single citizenship, family unity, diplomatic convenience, and inter-state comity, were treated as imperatives that overrode women’s independent personal status. Such laws, which expanded at the very time when women were gaining legal and political rights, impacted radically, sometimes tragically, on individual lives, including rendering many thousands of women stateless. This essay gives an account of the emergence and evolution of such laws, with particular reference to Britain and the United States. It provides a ‘snapshot’ of individual cases, and an overview of the international community’s response.
Irving comments that
these laws were not, as might be thought, a feature of the distant past, nor a consequence of the old doctrine of ‘coverture’, under which a woman’s legal identity – her right to hold property, enter into a contract, and assume legal obligations – was subsumed under her husband’s. The derivative character of women’s citizenship is much more recent. Indeed, the laws that forced a married woman to follow her husband’s nationality were passed by democratic parliaments, at a time when coverture had been almost completely abandoned. Decades after the first Married Women’s Property Acts (1839 in the U.S. (Mississippi); 1870 inthe U.K.), the laws governing a woman’s nationality might still have been described in words identical to those of Blackstone in 1769: "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband". Derivative nationality coincided temporally, furthermore, with the expansion of the political rights we readily associate with citizenship. By the date of Dowson’s letter, women in many parts of the world, including Britain, the Dominions, and the U.S. could vote and stand for public office. A significant number, indeed, were already Members of Parliament. Women were demonstrating their capacity – long impugned by anti-suffragists – to participate as active citizens and to enjoy their new status. But to do this, they had to be – and had to remain - citizens in the first place. 
The fall of the dice depended on love. Under nationality laws that were virtually universal between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, a woman who married a foreigner became, in her own country, an alien. A woman whose husband - with or without her consent - was naturalised in a foreign country, automatically lost her own citizenship. In most countries, at the same time, a foreign woman who married a citizen was automatically naturalised in his nationality, and a husband’s naturalisation had the same effect. Forsaking all others, in citizenship as in love, the marriage vow was simultaneously an oath of denaturalisation. This, the British government liked to claim, was the practice of ‘most civilised countries.’ 
Stated as such, it sounds simple (if unjust, and certainly inegalitarian: no country made a man’s citizenship dependent on that of his wife). But beyond the question of justice, the operation of the law was, in reality, horrendously complex. The numbers, to start with, were far from insignificant (in 1922, for example, an estimated 30,000 of the alien women living in Britain were British-born, former subjects). The lives of numerous individual women were dramatically affected, sometimes tragically. Although the automatic naturalisation of foreign wives conferred benefits on many, its effect – like the automatic denaturalisation of women who married foreigners - was to subordinate, even infantilise, women as a class, long after they had begun to emerge as political adults. The women ... understood not only the practical, but also the existential injury of derivative citizenship: the psychological affront, even to those who suffered no personal disadvantage. ....
Few  historians  have  recorded  these  events,  and  lawyers' treatises on citizenship rarely  give  them  more  than  a  glance.  Histories  of  international  and  imperial  relations  are   almost  uniformly  silent.  There  are  some  valuable  studies  of  marital  denaturalisation  in   particular  countries,  especially  the  United  States,  but  most  treat  the  law  as  peculiar  to  the   country  in  question.  Few  have  seen  the  larger  dimensions.  ... 
  It  is  a  story  of  the  sacrifice  of  the  identity  (and  often  security)  of  vulnerable   individuals  against  the  interests  (sometime  imperatives)  of  inter-state  relations.  It  is  a  story,   not  necessarily  of  deliberate  hostility  (although  there  was  that),  but  mostly  of  disregard   compounded  by  stereotypes  -  one  that  speaks  acutely  to  our  time.  The  global  movement  of   persons  seeking  refuge  or  reward,  the  persistence  of  statelessness  (which  still  affects  more   women  in  the  world  than  men),  and  the  growing  demands  on  governments  to  accommodate   pluralism,  have  thrown  into  relief  the  importance  of  citizenship  and  the  existential   consequences  of  being  (or  not  being)  a  particular  type  of  citizen.  Ayelet  Shachar  has  called   this 'the birthright lottery' but  it  has  not  been  a  matter  of  birth  alone.  It  has  also  been,   profoundly,  a  matter  of  love  and  of  gender.  When  we  factor  in  the  latter,  we  open  a  window   on  a  human  story,  still  unfinished,  still  relevant,  and  deserving  to  be  known.