Nancy Leifer and Nancy Maxson, Co-Presidents of the League of Women Voters of Missoula 

The term “citizenship” in our American democracy can be a confusing word to use. Sometimes it is defined in a narrow, legal way, meaning only those people who hold U.S. passports or are eligible to vote. There is a broader definition: citizens are residents who care about the communities in which they live. 

In this week’s column we’ll discuss the legal description of citizenship and next week look at broader definitions.

The legal definition of citizenship refers to a “legal link” between an individual and a nation, state or town that entitles the individual to certain protections, rights and privileges, and makes the individual subject to certain obligations and allegiance to that government. The government-- and the people in government-- decide who gets to be a citizen and who doesn’t.

In 1776 the people who decided to form the government that would become the United States were all property owning, Christian, white men. They limited the status of “citizenship” to men who looked like them and came from the same economic class. 

Women, American Indians, African Americans, Asian Americans, people who didn’t own property and people with disabilities have all had to fight for the privileges (voting) and protections (equal protection under the law) of full citizenship. They have had to make the case in courts, legislatures and to Congress that they deserve full citizenship status under the law.

Since the passage of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, children obtain their citizenship at birth through the legal principle of jus soli (“right of the soil”)—that is, being born on U.S. soil, or jus sanguinis (“right of blood”)—that is, being born to parents who are United States citizens. This is called “birthright citizenship.” The 14th amendment gave citizenship to African American former slaves, but specifically denied American Indians citizenship, even though Native Americans had deeper roots in this country than the white men politicians who passed the amendment. 

“Naturalized citizens” are immigrants who swear allegiance to the United States. Since 1790, the United States has passed laws dictating who could become a naturalized citizen. Requirements for and restrictions to citizenship have mirrored the ugly history of American racism. Immigration quotas, racial exclusion acts and physical and moral fitness texts were used to keep certain people out so America could cling to the idea of a “white man’s democracy”. 

According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, these are the rights and responsibilities of American citizens today.


  • Freedom to express yourself.
  • Freedom to worship as you wish.
  • Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury.
  • Right to vote in elections for public officials.
  • Right to apply for federal employment requiring U.S. citizenship.
  • Right to run for elected office.
  • Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


  • Support and defend the Constitution.
  • Stay informed of the issues affecting your community.
  • Participate in the democratic process.
  • Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.
  • Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.
  • Participate in your local community.
  • Pay income and other taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state, and local authorities.
  • Serve on a jury when called upon.

Next week we’ll look at broader definitions of citizenship.

 The League of Women Voters has been registering voters and providing non-partisan voting information for over 100 years. Membership is open to men and women, citizens and non-citizens over the age of 16. For more information about the Missoula League, go to our website:

Spotlight on Citizenship 

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