The New York Times editorial on the disappointing hold up in congressional efforts to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act rightly calls out senators for putting corporate interests above those of female employees, who remain underpaid and sidelined in the workplace. Distracting discussions about the so-called “Opt Out Revolution” and the “post-feminist” age aside , the fundamental fact remains that women and corporations have always been at odds. It’s a little noticed fact that corporations had legal personhood in the US and beyond far before women. Although historians disagree on the exact origin of the idea of “corporate personhood,” it was a concept undeniably familiar to Roman and mediaval jurists (including Pope Innocent IV, who is sometimes called the father of the modern corporation). Corporations were allowed to contract, to sue and be sued in their name, and to own property, while women were still under coverture well into the 19th century.
The history of corporate personhood may not immediately seem like the cause of the lingering 77 cents on the dollar reality for working women; however, it speaks to the overall willingness for courts and politicians to recognize equal citizenship rights for corporations (Citizens United being the best, recent example), while ignoring the blatant unfairness and inequality faced by women. Given the historical development of legal personhood, it should surprise no one that corporate interests continue to precede and dominate the interests of women.