Why Women and Minorities (Especially) Need a Second Citizenship
The concept of citizenship has a long history. But until recently, it belonged only to men. In the US, it belonged only to white men.
Citizenship originated in efforts to transcend bonds to a person’s family or tribe to a larger political entity. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the earliest account of citizenship 2,300 years ago, using ancient Athens as a model.
In Athens, men over the age of 20 could claim citizenship. To qualify, they had to be born of an Athenian family, oversee a household, be trained as warriors, and own slaves. Women couldn’t qualify for citizenship, although they enjoyed its benefits if married to an Athenian citizen.
Ancient Rome also had restrictive requirements for citizenship. But in A.D. 212, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free men living in Rome or its colonies. As in Athens, women weren’t invited to join the party.
You could lose Roman citizenship for theft, murder, or treason. And while Roman citizens couldn’t be sentenced to death, once you lost that status, the state could kill you at will. This pattern has survived to the present day in the US and many other countries.
When the US Constitution was ratified, only white men had the full rights of citizenship. And women lost many rights once they married. Under the English common law concept of couverture, inherited into American law, a married woman was effectively the property of her husband. A wife couldn’t enter into a contract, make a will, or own property in her own name.
The power of couverture eroded throughout the nineteenth century. Most states enacted laws that gave married women rights previously restricted to their husbands, such as property ownership.
But in 1907, Congress enacted the “Expatriation Act,” which reinforced the power of couverture. It declared that if a female US citizen married a non-US citizen, she would lose her US citizenship. One member of Congress (all male at that time) remarked that the proposed law would be “a good lesson to our American girls to marry American boys.”
Many women were unaware of the law. When they married non-US citizens, they were often left stateless, with no right to live anywhere. Then and now, most countries didn’t automatically convey citizenship to a non-citizen spouse.
Even though many American women lost their citizenship under the Expatriation Act, the Supreme Court upheld the law in 1915. The court concluded that since marriage was voluntary, an American woman who married a non-citizen voluntarily gave up citizenship.
That reasoning may appear preposterous today. But the decision gave Congress permission to expand the grounds on which citizens could lose their citizenship. While the Expatriation Act was repealed in 1931, by the early 1950s, you could be involuntarily expatriated if you:
- lived for an extended period in another country
- voted in a foreign election
- acted on behalf of a foreign government
The situation was worse for ethnic minorities – both male and female. Americans of African descent weren’t awarded citizenship until the 14th Amendment came into effect in 1868. That amendment gave citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the US. Native Americans weren’t given citizenship until 1924. Chinese nationals living in the US had to wait until 1943. Indeed, race-based exclusion to citizenship didn’t disappear completely until 1952.
A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s restricted the ability of Congress to pass laws to involuntarily expatriate US citizens. In most cases, you couldn’t be stripped of your citizenship unless you voluntarily relinquished it.
The current policy of the State Department is to require proof of intent to lose US citizenship. Generally, you must meet with a consular official at a US embassy and sign forms demonstrating such intent. You must also give up your passport, since only a US citizen or a non-citizen national can legally carry one.
But you can still be involuntarily stripped of US citizenship in certain cases. These include:
- accepting a policymaking position in a foreign government
- serving in the armed forces of a foreign state at war with the US
- committing treason.
Legislation proposed in 2016 by Senator Raphael “Ted” Cruz (R.-Texas) would expand this list to any American who provides “material assistance” to a “foreign terrorist organization.” Fortunately, the law never passed.
These provisions apply (or in the case of the Cruz proposal, would apply) to both sexes and all races. Yet the gender and race-based norms that once applied for citizenship could be resurrected by politicians eager to reinstill “traditional values” into American law.
And for a government, stripping political enemies of citizenship is useful. As in ancient Rome, once you lose citizenship, you also lose any legal protections your country extends to citizens. If you don’t have a second citizenship, you become stateless. It also makes it easier from a legal standpoint for your (former) government to kill you. After all, it’s now acting against an “enemy alien.” That avoids pesky due process requirements like a trial or criminal conviction.
The UK has used this strategy since it enacted amendments to its Citizenship Law in 2006. Around 120 suspected terrorists have been stripped of their UK citizenship since the amendments came into effect. At least two have been killed in drone strikes. There’s no reason to think the US will be any different.
Anyone can benefit from a second citizenship and passport. But a second passport is even more important for females and racial minorities. Given our history, anyone with a political disadvantage should think about a second passport as part of their “Plan B.”
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