Cable Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Cable Act revoked the principle that a woman automatically assumed the citizenship of her husband in the United States.

Summary of Event

National laws regulating the acquisition and loss of citizenship fall fully within the sovereign prerogatives of national governments. Various countries have adopted certain common rules and procedures, but considerable variation remains over time and across nations. This is especially true in regard to the determination of the citizenship status of women who marry foreigners. In many countries, a woman automatically loses her original citizenship when she marries and assumes that of her husband. In other countries, a woman who marries an alien retains her original citizenship unless she specifically renounces it. In the United States, the Cable Act of 1922, following closely on the heels of the woman suffrage movement and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, attempted to rectify the negative effects of earlier legislation that had hampered women’s independence in choosing their citizenship status upon marriage to aliens. Cable Act (1922) Women;citizenship (U.S.) Citizenship laws [kw]Cable Act (Sept. 22, 1922) [kw]Act, Cable (Sept. 22, 1922) Cable Act (1922) Women;citizenship (U.S.) Citizenship laws [g]United States;Sept. 22, 1922: Cable Act[05600] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 22, 1922: Cable Act[05600] [c]Women’s issues;Sept. 22, 1922: Cable Act[05600] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Sept. 22, 1922: Cable Act[05600] Cable, John Levi Harding, Warren G. Park, Maud Wood Yost, Lenna Lowe

To understand exactly what the Cable Act did, some knowledge of the historical setting in which it was promulgated is useful. A time-honored tradition of English customary law affirmed the practice of not depriving a female citizen of her citizenship in the event of her marriage to a foreigner. This old English practice was originally followed in U.S. law, but this Anglo-American tradition ran counter to the practices of most countries as late as the end of the nineteenth century. In most other nations, when a woman married an alien, her citizenship automatically followed that of her husband. Both the United States and Great Britain eventually abandoned the tradition of preserving a woman’s citizenship upon marriage to an alien, and by 1908, women marrying aliens automatically assumed the citizenship of their husbands in all the major countries of Europe and Latin America.

In the United States, the shift in the law was gradual. As early as 1855, for example, Congress passed legislation that automatically conferred U.S. citizenship on any alien woman who married a U.S. citizen. In the Expatriation Act of 1907, Expatriation Act (1907) Congress went a step further, providing that “any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.” With the passage of this act, the United States fell into line with standard international practice of the time.

Although this new U.S. law was in general accordance with the practices of other countries, it had illogical domestic consequences. Many American women married to aliens continued to live with their husbands in the United States but were deprived of their U.S. citizenship, whereas alien women who married American men automatically received U.S. citizenship. The Expatriation Act arbitrarily deprived American women of their citizenship and reduced their independence in choosing their nationality upon marriage. Public opinion put pressure on Congress to rectify the disorderly and arbitrary features of the new legislation. During the national political campaign of 1920, both the Republicans and the Democrats incorporated language into their party platforms calling for the independent citizenship of married women. The largest international women’s rights organization of the day, the International Council of Women, International Council of Women at its 1920 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, called on national legislatures to acknowledge the right of women to choose their nationality upon marriage.

When Representative John Levi Cable of Ohio introduced his bill addressing this issue, he noted that “the laws of our country should grant independent citizenship to women.” Just prior to the vote in Congress on the Cable Act, a number of prominent women leaders, including Maud Wood Park, president of the National League of Women Voters, and Lenna Lowe Yost, president of the West Virginia Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, called on Congress to adopt the legislation. The Carnegie Foundation undertook an influential study of judicial opinion on the subject and found that two-thirds of the judges surveyed were in favor of women’s independence in determining their citizenship upon marriage. Upon passage of the bill and its imminent signing into law by President Warren G. Harding, Cable spoke even more eloquently to the law’s design:

The purpose of the law is to place citizenship on the highest plane possible. It is a privilege and not a right. It should be acquired upon an independent basis; justice and common sense dictate that the woman should have the same right as the man to choose the country of her allegiance. Participation in our Government and the protection by our country should not be determined solely by wedding ceremonies.

The Cable Act of 1922, which is chapter 411 of the National Defense Act, in effect amended the 1855 law that automatically granted U.S. citizenship to alien women who married U.S. citizens and the 1907 Expatriation Act, which had deprived U.S. women of their U.S. citizenship when they married foreigners. Although the act reaffirmed the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, without prejudice to her sex or because she was a married woman, it explicitly revoked the notion that a woman would automatically become a U.S. citizen because of marriage to a U.S. citizen or because her husband had been naturalized. Women were to be treated as individuals and, if otherwise eligible for naturalization, could seek U.S. citizenship through regular compliance with naturalization laws. Alien women who married U.S. citizens or whose husbands became naturalized could choose whether or not to seek U.S. citizenship. The Cable Act did not disturb or invalidate the citizenship of women who had achieved automatic citizenship prior to its passage.

Section 3 of the Cable Act addressed the predicament of American women who had previously married aliens and, under the provisions of the 1907 Expatriation Act, thereby lost their U.S. citizenship. The act acknowledged that each woman has a right to acquire a new nationality, including that of her husband, and otherwise retain the right to expatriate herself, but that this should be a matter of deliberate choice rather than an automatic effect of the law. The Cable Act states that “a woman citizen of the United States shall not cease to be a citizen of the United States by reason of her marriage after the passage of this Act, unless she makes a formal renunciation of her citizenship before a court having jurisdiction over naturalization of aliens.”

Although some advocates for immigrant communities have criticized the Cable Act as an attempt to restrict immigration, it actually was adopted for the purpose of increasing the independence of married women. The Cable Act was later amended to streamline naturalization procedures even more.


The Cable Act is an important example of reform in citizenship laws. The new rules it enunciated drew international attention, and, in 1926, the League of Nations prepared a new draft convention on the status of married women. This was followed in 1933 by the adoption of the Convention on the Nationality of Women by the Montevideo Conference of American States. However, this effort to internationalize the new U.S. principles for dealing with the citizenship of married women did not enjoy immediate or widespread success. The United States and certain Latin American countries ratified the convention, but most other countries failed to do so. As of the end of the twentieth century, the determination of the citizenship of married women remained a matter of national prerogative. Cable Act (1922) Women;citizenship (U.S.) Citizenship laws

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. Examines trends in and influences on U.S. immigration policy from late in the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Chapter 2 addresses the period of the 1920’s and the Cable Act. Includes tables and charts, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kansas, Sidney. Citizenship of the United States of America. New York: Washington, 1936. Dated but useful study contains a copy of the Cable Act, with commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kettner, James H. The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978. Traces the development of the idea of citizenship in the formative stages of the American republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Presents the history of American immigration and naturalization policy and associated legal and public debates through the texts of more than one hundred primary documents, including the Cable Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Glahn, Gerhard. Law Among Nations: An Introduction to Public International Law. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1995. Standard text on international law provides a succinct history of the Cable Act.

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Categories: History