By Molly Hults
As the processing archivist at the Austin History Center it is my job to arrange/organize materials in the archival collections we hold and create reference tools that allow researchers to find and access the materials. This process allows me to have unique access into the personal lives of Austinites that have long since passed. Some collections pique my curiosity so much that I feel compelled to conduct further research to put their lives into the context of the time that they were living. Recently I was processing the Hirshfeld Family Papers, a family whose story in Austin began in the late 1800s, and discovered a complicated story of citizenship, the impact United States’ shifting immigration and naturalization laws have on individuals, gender inequality and the consequences of changing political boundaries. Given that these same issues are forefront on many people’s minds today I just had to delve deeper into the story…..
Hirschfeld House, W. 9th Street, PICH 05251, circa 1887
It all started when I found the United States Registration Card of Alien Female issued in 1918 to Leila Hirshfeld Bernheim in one of the boxes. This made no sense to me because Leila was born in Austin, Texas in 1886 to Henry and Jennie Hirshfeld. She grew up in the Hirshfeld Home that still stands on West 9th Street between Lavaca and Guadalupe Streets and attended Austin Public Schools and the University of Texas. Leila was a citizen of the United States; why was this status taken away? But then I found the Alien Registration Card of her husband, Max Bernheim, whom she married in 1910. And given that a woman’s identity and legal status was tied to her husband during this time period, to understand Leila’s story you have to know her husband’s.
Max Bernheim came to the United States from the Alsace region of France with his mother in 1885 when he was about five years old. Max grew up thinking that his father, who arrived in the U.S. a few years before, was a naturalized citizen. Even though Max’s father had voted in every election it turned out that while he submitted the application to become naturalized he never received the Certificate of
Bride and groom Leila and Max Bernheim from their wedding memory book, 1910, AR.H.024
Naturalization. Under the assumption of his father’s citizenship, Max also voted in elections and when he filled out his World War I Draft Registration Card on September 12, 1918, he checked the box that read “Citizen by Father’s Naturalization Before Registrant’s Majority” and signed the form to “Affirm That I Have Verified Above Answers and That They Are True.” However, when he applied for the United States Army Ordnance Corps a
month later and was required to supply a copy of his father’s Certificate of Naturalization, he discovered that his father was not a citizen, which meant neither was he. To further complicate matters, while Max’s father considered himself to be from France (that is what he listed on the 1900 United States Federal Census) because France was in control of the Alsace region when he was born, he was, in fact, from a region that had been incorporated into the German Empire after the Franco-German War in 1871 and in 1918 was still considered to be a part of Germany. Max was considered an alien of a country with whom the United States was at war and was not eligible for citizenship. The boundary shifted again after World War I and the Alsace region was returned to France allowing Max to apply for citizenship, which was granted in 1923 as evidenced by the Certificate of Naturalization found in the collection.
Max Bernheim’s letter to the Naturalization Examiner asking for advice on how to "secure his naturalization papers", October 18 1918, AR.H.024
But why did this affect Leila’s citizenship when she was clearly born in the United States? Because in 1907 federal immigration law was passed that stated that upon marriage a woman would take the nationality of her husband (while this was how many interpreted the immigration law before 1907 the new law left no room for interpretation). Max’s discovery that he wasn’t a citizen resulted in Leila's also being considered a resident alien. Women’s citizenship status became a more important issue as states started granting women the right to vote and the subsequent 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Suddenly a woman’s nationality began to interfere with men’s ability to naturalize. Some judges refused to grant a husband’s naturalization if the wife didn’t meet eligibility requirements, including the ability to speak English. Now both men and women had incentive to separate the citizenship status of the wife from the husband. The Cable Act (otherwise known as the Married Women’s Act), passed in 1922, guaranteed women would not lose citizenship by reason of her marriage as long as she married a foreign national eligible for naturalization. The Act also provided a process for most of the women (except those married to Asian men) to regain citizenship after losing it due to marriage to a non-citizen.
|Max Bernheim's Alien Registration Card deeming him an "alien enemy", 1918, AR.H.024|
One of the frustrating aspects of my job is that the archival record doesn’t always tell the whole story. The collection contains multiple letters Max wrote to the Naturalization Examiner citing various legal statutes in an attempt to find a path to naturalization which would imply that United States citizenship was important to him. Unfortunately, the archival collection does not contain any letters or a diary belonging to Leila to provide any insight into how she felt about being stripped of her citizenship. Leila and Max were living in Arizona when they lost their citizenship and in Arizona women had the right to vote in 1918, so this change in status had a tangible implication. A search in Ancestry.com confirmed that Leila did fill out a petition for naturalization in 1923 after the passage of the Cable Act. The U. S. government hadn’t updated the forms yet and she had to cross out the word “wife” and handwrite the word “husband” on the form.
Intersted in further reading on this subject? Check out these other blogs and articles:
- National Archives Prologue Magazine, Summer 1998, Vol. 30, No. 2:
- Ancestry.com. The National Archives at Fort Worth; Fort Worth, Texas; ARC Title: Petitions for Naturalization, 1907-09/30/1991; NAI Number: 571499; Record Group Title: Records of District Courts of the United STates, 1685-2009; Record Group Number: 21.
- Ancestry.com. U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1917 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
- Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.0