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Subject to Empire: Married Women and the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2014


The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens (BNSA) Act stated that “the wife of a British subject shall be deemed to be a British subject, and the wife of an alien shall be deemed to be an alien.” By this reenactment of an 1870 law, a British woman who married an alien became an alien herself, losing the rights and privileges accorded to British nationality. During the 1920s and 1930s, British feminists from around the Empire worked to change this regulation, but only in 1948 were women in the United Kingdom granted the right to their own nationality regardless of their marital status. The House of Commons largely supported the feminists' efforts to reform the laws so that women would not automatically lose their nationality on marriage. Members of Parliament introduced several bills to equalize the nationality laws that were read without division. The Government, however, consistently blocked the bills, citing the imperial nature of the nationality laws and Dominion disagreement with the change. This contest over nationality has been a neglected topic in the study of twentieth-century British history. Legal historians have, by and large, only described changes in the laws regarding married women's national status. While some historians of the women's movement in the British Isles have noted the equal nationality campaign, most have not realized how it can contribute to our understanding of interwar Britain and British feminism. Pat Thane, however, has seen in this topic an example of the way the Empire has influenced British culture.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference of British Studies 2001

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