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Tender Ties: Husbands' Rights and Racial Exclusion in Chinese Marriage Cases, 1882-1924

  • Todd Stevens

Abstract

When Congress ended the immigration of Chinese laborers in 1882, the Chinese population was over 95% male. While there has been much disagreement about why so few women came, the more fruitful question may be to ask how Chinese women were able to immigrate to the United States at all. Central to their immigration were legal arguments for lawful Chinese immigrants—primarily merchants and native-bom citizens—to bring their wives to the United States. Due to racial restrictions barring them from independent entry or marital naturalization, Chinese wives appealed to the uncodified gender privileges of their husbands in turn-of-the-century legal society: the natural right of a man to the company of his wife and children. In the face of a bureaucratic structure designed to sift immigrants by race, judges ruled that racial admission policies must conform to established gender privileges. The power of these arguments was tested in cases involving the deportation of Chinese women admitted as wives. While initially evading registration regulations for immigrants, Chinese women were unsuccessful at evading regulations concerning prostitution. This failure underscored the performative aspects of husbands' rights arguments, especially the image of the dutiful wife and husband and the class-based ideal of the elite merchant or citizen.

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