Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Ethel Mackenzie (a.k.a. Ethel Gordon), 1885-1959

By: Brendan Shanahan, PhD Candidate in History, UC Berkeley

Ethel Mackenzie (nee Coope [often misspelled Cooper]; alias Ethel Gordon) was born to prominent Santa Cruz landowners J.F. and Bertha Coope on March 12, 1885 in Woodside, California. She was educated in San Francisco, studied music, and married local celebrity and Scottish professional singer Gordon Mackenzie on August 14, 1909. She became active in the San Francisco suffrage movement around the time of the 1911 state referendum campaign and was a member of the Club Woman's Franchise League. But Mackenzie is best known for her campaign to achieve independent citizenship for American women in the 1910s.

In January 1913 Mackenzie attempted to register to vote. Local officials rejected her application, citing the federal Expatriation Act of 1907, which stipulated that American women lost their citizenship upon marriage to noncitizen men. California did not grant aliens suffrage rights, thus Mackenzie could only register to vote if her husband became an American citizen whereby she would derive citizenship through his naturalization. She had other ideas, however.

Mackenzie challenged the Expatriation Act in court and served as a test case against its provisions. She filed suit against San Francisco's Election Commissioners, citing the Fourteenth Amendment's birthright citizenship provisions and argued that she had never lost her nationality. Rejected in the California courts, she took her case to the federal Supreme Court which ruled on Mackenzie v. Hare in 1915. The high court rejected her claims, insisting that a woman who married a foreign man did so of her own volition and thus her expatriation was of a "voluntary" nature. Thereafter, Mackenzie encouraged her husband to naturalize and she became a citizen once more, though she continued to protest the court's decision.

Mackenzie's campaign to overturn the provisions of the Expatriation Act of 1907 did not go unnoticed. It was covered extensively in the San Francisco and national press. Mackenzie was widely portrayed as a sympathetic and patriotic woman whose loss of citizenship status and accompanying rights was an unacceptable affront to American-born women. Her case led directly to congressional efforts to repeal the Expatriation Act and extensive campaigns by women's rights organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association to achieve independent citizenship for married women. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the League of Women Voters successfully campaigned for the Cable Act of 1922, which repealed most of the provisions of the Expatriation Act of 1907 (though American women marrying East and South Asian men continued to lose their citizenship until 1931).

The mother of one would remain active in San Francisco high society for decades. She later moved to Palo Alto, CA where she died on April 4, 1959 at the age of seventy-four. In the past several decades, immigration and women's historians have emphasized Mackenzie's campaign as a key turning point in the development of twentieth-century American citizenship law.


Primary Sources accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers:

"Expatriation Law Attacked." Los Angeles Times. April 7, 1915.

"Mrs. Mackenzie Denied Suffrage Rights in State by High Court." San Francisco Chronicle. August 6, 1913.

"S.F. Women Are Hit by Court Ruling" San Francisco Chronicle. December 7, 1915.

"Will Petition Congress for California Girl." Los Angeles Times. April 11, 1913.

Primary Sources accessed via

Fourteenth United States Census. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921.

New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.

Thirteenth United States Census. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911.

U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. "Palo Alto, California, City Directory, 1958."

Other Primary Sources:

"Ethel C. Gordon." Palo Alto Historical Association Obituary Index. Palo Alto Times. April 4, 1959.

"Social Register, San Francisco, California, 1932, Vol., XLVI, No. 9." Social Register Association. New York City: November, 1931.

"Will Be Bride of Well Known Singer." San Francisco Call. June 10, 1909. California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Secondary Sources:

Bredbenner, Candice Lewis. A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Cott, Nancy F. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Gardner, Martha. The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870-1965. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Kerber, Linda K. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.

Nicolosi, Ann Marie. "'We Do Not Want Our Girls to Marry Foreigners': Gender, Race, and American Citizenship." NWSA Journal 13, no. 3 (October 1, 2001): 1-21.

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