In an essay titled "The Stateless as the Citizen's Other," Ms. Kerber dove into her topic by posing a question provoked by Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly: "What passport could the ill-fated child of Madame Butterfly and Captain Pinkerton carry?"
Ms. Kerber explained that this fictional child was entitled to no passport as a birthright in Japan or the United States at the turn of the century, when Puccini's opera is set. Inclusion in the father's family registry was the test of citizenship in Japan, so Butterfly's child was not technically Japanese. Because he was born out of wedlock outside the United States, Madame Butterfly's son was not automatically a U.S. citizen. Only Captain Pinkerton -- via a formal legal effort to claim paternity -- could confer his U.S. citizenship upon the child.
This intellectual aria was the kickoff to Ms. Kerber's wide-ranging examination of various ways in which human beings fall into gaps between laws and customs involving nationality and citizenship. Legal systems and mechanisms that privilege gender as a test of citizenship were a particular focus of the address.
In regard to citizenship, she observed, "The status of the mother and the status of the father are considered asymmetrically." Ms. Kerber recalled for her audience the fact that even the daughter of President Ulysses S. Grant was denaturalized by U.S. law when she married a British subject -- and needed a special act of the U.S. Congress to regain that citizenship.
The issue of statelessness, she argued, "should command the attention of historians as well as humanitarians."