Women Without a Country2020-04-30T15:25:33-04:00

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Women Without a Country

A newspaper article that challenges the unfair federal policy that tied a woman’s citizenship to that of her husband and offers an example of how one native-born American woman was a victim of the system.

This is My Own, My Native Land

Kohler, Mira Edson. “This is My Own, My Native Land.” New York Tribune. February 9, 1919. Page 9.

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Summary

“This is My Own, My Native Land”
By Mira Edson Kohler
“This is My Own, My Native Land”
By Mira Edson Kohler
The man without a country has been held as one deserving of our sympathy. It is perhaps true of a woman, too—though no one seems to have thought of it. The United States treats men without clear citizenship as people who deserve sympathy. Why don’t women receive the same treatment?
As to birth, I was born in the very heart, one might say, geographically, of this broad land; as to parentage, from two old America families, both originally from New England. One side counts its entrance into America with the Mayflower, and lived not so far from its landing place—that is, near Boston—until my father’s time. He, as a young clergyman, sought his fortune and found a bride in the “West,” as it then was. She was the daughter of one who had gone out from Connecticut, with his young wife of good Albany family, to be practically a pioneer in the town of the Middle West where he prospered, acquired property and is represented still to-day; the family looking back to the noted, brilliant but unfortunate Aaron Burr and his beautiful daughter, Theodosia, as among those related to us. The author was born in the western United States. Her ancestors include passengers on the Mayflower and Aaron Burr.
A Worker for Woman Suffrage
The influence of Western democracy, although I came East while I was still a child, has had an effect, perhaps, in shaping my ideas and tendencies—modified by later experience. With the ideas inherent in the woman movement I have always been imbued and have at times worked directly for the cause—even walked in the first parade of the women in New York.
The author has fought for woman suffrage and is inspired by the ideals of democracy as she experienced them growing up in the West.
The state allows to its male citizens recognition in a nominal supposition that these are the representatives outside the home and the protectors of it. However, as truly as a young man does, I went out to seek my own, coming to New York City the second year I was out of boarding school, with money earned by teaching in a district school. The American government recognizes men as full citizens and assumes that their vote represents the ideals of the entire household. They also serve as protector. But the author (a woman) sees herself as equally independent. She moved to New York City using money she earned as a teacher.
It was such a school as perhaps is now quite out of date; where the older boys took turns in making the fire and where many of the children walked miles to and from home each day. Here, accompanying them on a small cabinet organ, I taught them the national hymns which are now so familiar to all of us. And with what remained of the money after incidentals had been paid, New York was reached. I made my way and studied art, with a summer abroad later. The author describes teaching in a school before moving to New York City, where she studied art.
As a teacher I have aimed to cultivate the independent spirit of America—the thinking choice of liberty. In individual progress I have dipped into the various isms concerning society with the view of a perfect state. The way of industries has been studied, both the actual making of things and the relation of the human element involved. As a teacher, the author taught American ideals to her students.
A Woman Without a Country
To-day, however, I find myself without a citizenship. Have I a country?
The author questions the state of her citizenship.
Some years ago I married a foreigner of South German birth, who had left Germany because of what the army discipline meant. When I knew him he was a whole-souled admirer of this land and all its history and documents. During the many years he had spent in this country his parents had died, and all connection with Europe had long since ceased. Even the language had been dropped. The author married a German immigrant. He had lived in the United States a long time and had very few ties to his home country.
He was deeply interested in the institutions and the attitude of mind which were American and the matter of citizenship had not seemed of immediate consequence.  The author’s husband believed in American ideals, and becoming a citizen didn’t seem very urgent.
Later on he took out first papers, “as a present” to me; but before the necessary two years had passed for ratifying them the matter of the war placed them on the table. He had begun the citizenship process, but could not complete it because of World War I. Germans could not become American citizens during the war.
And there they are.
His citizenship paper might allow me to come to the polls in my native land, but the personal inheritance I have in the country does not! And through the strange working out of things—where, indeed, is my legal allegiance supposed to be?
Because of the Expatriation Act, the author lost her citizenship when she married an immigrant without American citizenship.
Of course, one does not allow things like this to alienate one from one’s country. The author wants to remain loyal to the United States, even though she disagrees with the law.
But is the country not going to allow women thus placed—for there may be others in similar state—to speak? When thousands of women went to the polls last fall; when they considered this candidate and that, this party and that, I was barred from what I had so long waited for. The author cannot vote because she is not a citizen.
Would it not be wholly fair and quite safe for the country to allow its women to register on their own account, and the facts that they have American antecedents—as two old American names attest—and that they have lived, earned their own way, taught the young of the nation and entered many of the forward movements for years— The author wants the United States to allow American-born women married to immigrants to maintain their citizenship.
might not these count as something in preparing them for the vote? Is a young man of twenty-one better qualified? The author points out that she is just as qualified as a man to vote and to be a citizen.
This is my country by every possible right, and no one can say me nay. It is, both by nature and choice. But for me to enjoy citizenship my country must recognize me. The author wants to be recognized as a citizen by birth and by choice.
If Not a Citizen—An Alien Enemy?
Is it quite in character with the America we have all known and loved, which has always been open armed to all who wished to be free and to join his fortune with hers, which has welcomed the foreigner and made of him a new creature by teaching freedom and giving it—is it in character to narrow too greatly these privileges? America sees that it is narrow to refuse them to all her daughters.
If the United States can welcome male immigrants with open arms and give them freedom, it can also give women these rights.
But if I am not to vote when it is the right of every citizen, then am I a citizen of this land? If not, what am I? If the author is not a citizen of her home country, what is she?
One can, of course, seek the citizenship which Paul recommended to the early Christians, “in another country”—that is, a heavenly one—but meanwhile there is earth and there is—America. Cannot a reconstructed America include its proper children, self-determining patriots, in its heretofore generous confines? America should allow men and women born in the United States to maintain their citizenship if they want it.

Kohler, Mira Edson. “This is My Own, My Native Land.” New York Tribune. February 9, 1919. Page 9.

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Background

The Expatriation Act of 1907 linked a woman’s citizenship to that of her husband upon marriage. Whatever citizenship the husband held, so did his new wife. This meant that if a non-American woman married an American man, she would become a citizen. But, if an American woman married a non-American man, she would lose her citizenship. Although Congress claimed this policy was designed to prevent challenges of dual citizenship, it also reflected a growing fear of foreigners. By penalizing women for marrying immigrants, the government discouraged women from doing so. In addition, this law further emphasized the limitations of women in society and emphasized, once again, that marriage was the defining aspect of their lives.

About the Document

In this 1919 article from the New York Tribune, Mira Edson Kohler explains how her citizenship was affected by her marriage to a man with German citizenship. Mira lived in New York State, which enfranchised women in 1917. However, Mira lost her right to vote through her marriage to a non-American.

Vocabulary

  • alien enemy: An immigrant from a country with which the United States is at war.
  • antecedents: A condition that existed before changes were made.
  • ceased: Ended.
  • enfranchised: Granted the right to vote.
  • Expatriation Act: A 1907 act that linked a woman’s citizenship to that of her husband.
  • imbued: Infused or influenced.
  • inherent: Naturally occurring.
  • penalizing: Punishing.
  • took out first papers: Began the process of becoming a citizen.

Discussion Questions

  • What happened to Mira’s citizenship after she married her husband? What does she mean when she says she is a “woman without a country”?
  • Mira provides a brief account of her family history and her own life. What does she highlight and why does she do this?
  • Why does Mira highlight her work as a suffragist?
  • The final subheading questions whether Mira is an “alien enemy”? What does this term mean, and why would it apply to her?
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Suggested Activities

  • Connect this document to William Blackstone’s explanation of coverture, a common law practice where women fell under the legal and economic oversight of their husbands upon marriage. Ask students to discuss how the Expatriation Act reaffirms the principals of coverture and further prevents women from asserting their citizenship as individuals.
  • Pair this article with the photograph of Japanese picture brides arriving on Angel Island. The photograph relates to the Gentleman’s Agreement, another immigration-related policy enacted in 1907. Discuss how both the Expatriation Act and the Gentleman’s Agreement created unique challenges for women by linking immigration and citizenship to marriage.
  • Relate this article to the article about intermarriage by W.E.B. Du Bois (Resource 34 in the The Armory Show at 100 curriculum guide). How was marriage between people of different races and ethnicities treated in this era? What challenges did couples of mixed-race face?
  • Relate this article to the life story of Emma Goldman. Discuss how marriage was frequently intertwined with racist and xenophobic policies of the era.

Themes

IMMIGRATION, LAWS & LEGAL STATUS, MARRIAGE & DOMESTICITY, POLITICS & GOVERNMENT, SOCIAL REFORM, SUFFRAGE

Source Notes
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