Naturalization is both a right and a privilege, allowing those born in another country to become citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities, with one exception: in the U.S. a person of foreign birth cannot become president. Early naturalization laws did not restrict women from applying for naturalization, they were permitted but may have had little motivation. But a law passed in 1855 did restrict naturalizations for married women, who could obtain citizenship only through their husbands. For example, If a foreign-born woman married a U.S. citizen, she automatically became a citizen; likewise, if a foreign-born man became naturalized, his wife automatically became a citizen -- no paperwork involved. And a widow whose husband had applied for naturalization before his death (and the process could take several years) could apply on her own. And some unmarried women applied for naturalization. In addition, children born abroad whose parents were U.S. citizens obtained citizenship through their parents. So to determine if your immigrant grandmother became a citizen, you might also look at the citizenship of her father.
A good first step in determining citizenship is to check the U.S. Federal Census, which asked questions of naturalization as early 1800, You may have to do a little deductive reasoning, but you can find out if the husband or father of your female immigrant ancestor was a citizen, either by birth or by naturalization. After 1850, when all members of household were named (except slaves), you can see how women in your family responded to questions of naturalization or citizenship. They could certainly declare themselves citizens, if they married in or gained citizenship through one or both parents. The 1920 census asks the year of naturalization, specifically. Other years may ask only if the person was naturalized, yes or no, or if the person naturalized or alien. Sometimes it identifies only aliens, which suggests those who did not declare as alien, must be citizens. Remember to check state census records, and you may want to follow up, checking naturalization records for your male ancestors.
Help us improve this frequently asked questions area. Please send us feedback or additional questions.