Personhood: Curiouser and curiouser!

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Meizhu Lui
Meizhu Lui Meizhu Lui took the mantra “Educate, Agitate, Organize!” as the theme for her life’s work. As a hospital food service worker and union activist, she organized to demand that “women’s work” not be undervalued and underpaid, and to challenge occupational segregation. Later, as a community organizer for Health Care for All Massachusetts, then as Executive Director of United for a Fair Economy, and finally as Director of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative, she became known for her outspoken activism in ending race and gender inequities.

What’s a person?  It seems like it should be obvious who is a person and who is not.  Show a five year old some pictures: a white baby, an African American woman, a document of incorporation, a couple of magnified cells, a dog – and ask her to identify the people among them.  She’d probably pick the baby and the woman.

But our nation doesn’t have the sense of a five year old. It never has. And today, who/what it deems to be a “person” is “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said in Wonderland.


What is it that unifies those in this category?  We can’t use criteria to determine personhood such as those defining a duck: does it walk like a duck and quack like a duck? We’re more likely to find our answer when we ask, “Who does it benefit to bestow upon this item the mantle of personhood?”

Let’s start with the African American woman.  From the time white folks stepped off the boat with the intention of forming colonies, African Americans were not considered “people,”  especially the women.  To think that those enslaved might be people would call the whole institution of slavery into question.  So the enslaved were identified as “chattel,” or property.  African American women, like other farm animals, increased owners’ property and profits through forced reproduction and sale of their offspring.  After the slave trade was abolished in Europe in 1807, their function as breeders became even more important.  This didn’t affect African American men, because the plantation owners had no problem taking charge of the insemination procedure. Denying personhood to African Americans clearly benefited white male slave holders.

The 14th amendment was supposed to change all that, establishing that those formerly enslaved were indeed persons and citizens, with the same rights as whites.  While it took another hundred years for African Americans to get their Constitutionally guaranteed equal protection before the law, within twenty years, the Supreme Court decided that corporations were persons, and they immediately received the same benefits as white individual citizens.  As persons, corporations became protected by the First Amendment, allowing them free speech.  They can make crazy claims in advertising, and now, it’s fine to spend unlimited amounts of money on political speech since money is defined as speech. Curious!  Owners of corporations benefit from corporate personhood since they can buy elections. The next step is that they will be allowed to run for office, and we’ll have President Bank of America.

In Oklahoma, a new law declares that a fertilized egg is a person, and those microscopic cells have rights separate from those of the woman whose body that egg is part of.  Male leaders in the U.S. decry the lack of freedom for Muslim women – they have to cover their heads!  But Virginia Governor McDonnell not only supported an egg personhood bill for his state before being convinced to make a tactical retreat, but wanted to force women to endure an ultrasound method requiring vaginal probing before an abortion.  Isn’t it ironic that those who want government to leave them alone advocate that government penetrate women’s reproductive apparatus?  Unfortunately, personhoods can clash:  if fertilized eggs are granted personhood, fully formed and already born women will lose personhood:  they will not have the individual liberty promised in the Constitution.

And how about that dog?  During the Occupations, in Denver, the frustrated mayor wanted an identifiable leader to negotiate with.  Shelby – by all outward appearances, a dog – was duly elected.  The argument was on target:  “Shelby is closer to a person than any corporation.” Finally, a new category of “person” that doesn’t just benefit the 1%!

Curioser and curiouser.

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