Women and Citizenship at Home and Abroad

March 8, 2012
Women and Girls Mark International Womens Day 2012 in Sri Lanka

At the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, as we commemorate International Women's Day and Women's History Month, we recall the struggle of women in the United States to gain equal nationality rights as we seek to promote women's equal right to nationality in other countries around the world. Less than a century ago, discrimination against women in U.S. nationality law threatened women's dignity, broke apart their families, blocked their political participation, and undermined their livelihoods. Today, this insidious inequality persists in at least 30 countries around the world.

The story of Ethel Mackenzie illustrates this struggle here in the United States in the early 20th century. She was a native-born American citizen and resident of San Francisco who was active in the women's suffrage movement and participant in California's voter registration drive. Women in California had gained the right to vote in 1911, so Ethel Mackenzie was quite dismayed when she was denied the right to vote because, she learned, she was no longer a U.S. citizen. She had married a Scotsman -- a British citizen -- and according to U.S. citizenship law at the time, an American woman who married an alien automatically assumed her husband's nationality even if she never left the United States. Mackenzie brought her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost (Mackenzie v. Hare, 239 U.S. 299 (1915)).

American women did not gain equal rights to nationality until 1934, after a series of laws and amendments gradually eliminated provisions that had stripped women of U.S. citizenship upon marriage to a foreigner, and that prevented American citizen women from transmitting their citizenship to their children born abroad and petitioning for naturalization for foreign spouses. Women's equal rights to nationality were not restored retroactively in the United States until 1994. These changes would not have occurred without courageous individuals like Ethel Mackenzie, strong advocacy by civil society groups, and leadership by key legislators.

Today, the vast majority of countries around the world grant equal nationality rights to women, and others are moving in that direction. For example, we have seen recent progress in Algeria, Botswana, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, and other countries that have eliminated or limited discrimination against women in their nationality laws. At a ministerial meeting in Geneva marking the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness last December, Liberia and Senegal pledged to reform their laws to allow women to confer citizenship on their children.

Nationality laws that discriminate against women can deprive women and children of legal protection in the countries where they reside -- often for generations -- and can result in statelessness. Without recognition by any state, the estimated 12 million stateless persons around the world typically lack identity documentation, and cannot register births, marriages, or deaths. Without such documentation, they often cannot work legally or travel freely. They cannot vote, often cannot open a bank account, or own property, and they often lack access to health care and other public services. Without birth registration or citizenship documents, children are often barred from attending school. For these reasons, stateless persons are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary arrest and detention.

Secretary Clinton is leading the State Department's efforts to promote women's equal right to nationality and engage in diplomacy to mobilize other governments to repeal and amend nationality laws that discriminate against women. These are often complex issues, and our work is just beginning. Gender discrimination is a persistent challenge in many cultures and countries. But as we remember Ethel Mackenzie and the struggle for women's equal nationality rights here in the United States, we also see opportunities to achieve progress by working with governments, civil society groups, and multilateral partners. Additional information on gender discrimination in nationality laws and statelessness is available from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at www.unhcr.org, and on the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration website at www.state.gov/j/prm.

Continue the conversation on PRM's Facebook page.Related Content: Fact Sheet on Women's Nationality Initiative

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