The Price of Pacifism: Rebecca Shelley and Her Struggle for Citizenship

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Rebecca Shelley's life (1887 to 1984) was defined by two world wars and her personal commitment to absolute pacifism. This commitment, which greatly complicated Shelley's life, led her to test existing legal rulings about the citizenship rights of women and political dissenters. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she began a career as a high-school teacher of German in 1910, but soon found her true calling in peace activism. In 1915 she traveled to The Hague for a peace conference, the International Congress of Women, and sailed on the Ford Peace Ship later that same year. On her return to the United States, Shelley helped establish peace organizations in New York City. Her peace activities were significant enough to draw the attention of a New York State investigative committee that published its report, rifled Revolutionary Radicalism, in 1920. When Shelley married a German national in August 1922, she lost her citizenship because the ceremony took place before the Cable Act (allowing women to retain their U.S. citizenship upon marriage to a foreigner) went into effect. It would take five separate repatriation petitions in three separate courts and more than two decades before Shelley got her citizenship back. (1)

Shelley's repatriation cases were complicated by uncertainties about the precise meaning of female citizenship in the decades following women's enfranchisement and by the fact that she was an absolute pacifist who maintained that she had a right to liberty of conscience and that her total opposition to war did not in any way indicate a lack of patriotism. (2) Other women also lost their U.S. citizenship when they married non-US. citizens before the Cable Act was passed. But because Shelley was an absolute pacifist and continued to insist on her right to be a conscientious objector (like some of the men whose cause she had supported), she suffered from both patriarchal and political discrimination as applied to citizenship, pacifism, and patriotism. The story of Rebecca Shelley's repatriation efforts highlights the challenges women faced as they confronted the sexism inherent in the meaning of citizenship and the conflation of pacifism with disloyalty during a period of United States history complicated by the first Red Scare and a conservative backlash after World War I. Her story sheds light on two critical aspects of citizenship in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century: adjustments in women's citizenship status following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and, at the same time, higher standards for naturalization that required greater scrutiny of a candidate's beliefs and actions.

There was no question about Rebecca Shelley's citizenship at her birth. She was born to Salina Lankard and William Alfred Shelly in Sugar Valley, Pennsylvania, in 1887 (originally named Margaret Rebecca Shelly, she later changed the spelling of her last name to protect her family from the notoriety she acquired during her repatriation process and as a tribute to Percy Bysshe Shelley). She could trace her descent from a Mennonite family that had immigrated to the United States in the early eighteenth century, although she was not raised as a Mennonite. (3) Her father was a blacksmith turned minister. Rebecca was educated at the Clarion Normal School and then found work as a schoolteacher. In 1905 her family relocated to Michigan, purchasing a farm near Coleman, after her father accepted a position as an itinerant preacher with the Michigan Conference of the Evangelical Church. After teaching for two more years in Michigan, Shelley enrolled as a sophomore at the University of Michigan in 1907 and found a job to pay for her room and board. As busy as she was, she managed to enjoy her years as a student. She played on the women's basketball team, acted in college-theater productions, excelled in her study of the German language, became interested in woman suffrage, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1910. …