BY TRICIA LEBKUECHER
For those who know me personally, it might come as a surprise that my veganism/animal activism is not my most salient identity. Since I became a vegetarian back in 2006 (I was 16 at the time), I slowly transformed into the animal rights activist I have become today. I eventually became vegan (in late 2011), got involved with local and national animal rights organizations, and began organizing my own group, Nashville Animal Advocacy, which continues to grow and do great things for animals in Nashville. But long before I identified as an activist, a vegan, or even a vegetarian, I was a feminist.
I have felt my feminist identity as long as I can remember. My mother made sure of that. From an early age I learned to recognize the daily injustices women face, from my mother doing almost all of the housework (despite having a job with longer hours than my father’s), to the way other children used “like a girl” as an insult, and as I got older, the way women and girls were portrayed as sex objects, scenery, and tools for men’s pleasure in almost every aspect of television, media, and every day life.
As I have grown, I have realized that we as women get the short end of the stick in pretty much every area of life. Men in government put restrictions on our access to health care, birth control and reproductive rights, we get less pay than our male counterparts, we do more work in the home and at our jobs for no reason or recognition, we are underrepresented in many prestigious jobs and government, and the threat of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse is constant and ever-present. It’s a tough world out here for us gals, and perhaps the most frustrating thing of all is that many men who genuinely do care about women’s rights can’t even begin to understand the struggles of being a woman in a world that hates us. We simply live in different worlds.
To me, there is an obvious connection between feminism and veganism. I’m a strong supporter of the intersectionality of feminism (that is, that oppressive institutions are all connected), and therefore any oppression threatens other advances toward equality. Personally, since I consider non-human animals and the earth as a whole are victims of the patriarchy, I believe our liberation must mean theirs as well.
I don’t mean to say that women who eat meat are bad feminists, but I do encourage feminists to examine the parallels between our oppression and the way animals used for agriculture are treated. To me, veganism is the logical conclusion to be drawn from feminism. And these are the reasons why:
- The same oppressive institutions subjugate both women and non-human animals. (Read: Patriarchy)
In this post, I will frequently refer to animals as non-human persons. Though the legal battle is still ongoing, some animals are being afforded basic rights, and others are defined by law as non-human persons. (In the United States, sadly, other such measures have failed.) The debate largely hinges on the accepted definition of personhood, but since that definition has been changing throughout history and now includes corporations in the US, it is a fluid and debated concept. Like many other activist thinkers today, I am making my own judgment on behalf of animals and granting them personhood in my discourse.
When people eat meat, they make assumptions about the non-human person they’re eating. Often they ignore that person’s ability to feel pain, to suffer, to enjoy life, and instead relegate them to an object on their plate, something to be used and enjoyed by them, the superior. They also often think that this is the natural order of things, that humans eat their non-human sisters and brothers, that it is simply the way of the world. In fact, ask any meat-eater why they eat meat. Is it because they enjoy it? They feel like they need to to remain healthy? They don’t think animals have the right to life? Animals were put on this earth to serve us? God said we should eat animals? Now imagine any of those answers were used to justify the abuse of a human animal. Why are these excuses good enough to justify violence against animals, but not, say, against women?
The problem is that people don’t want to admit they are doing something that fundamentally oppresses another living being. But what is more oppressive than years of forced breeding then the literal consumption of the flesh of another? The sexual commodifying and consumption of women is a product of the same system through which we humans commodify and literally consume animals: it is the complete disregard for someone else’s interests if there is some benefit for our disregarding it, no matter how marginal the return (in this case, taste).
The sexual consumption of women and the physical consumption of animals are inextricably linked. You simply have to watch videos like this one of Paris Hilton eating a hamburger, courtesy of Carl’s Jr. (Sadly, it’s just one of many. Just google “Carl’s Jr. sexist ads” to find even more… Though I don’t know why you’d want to.) Who is the commodity here? The cow killed for her flesh to produce the burger, or the half-naked women eating it? The message is incredibly clear: By eating those hamburgers, you can have all these nice “objects,” like the car or a hot woman. (Credit for introducing me to these ads goes to one of my favorite professors of all time, and also a hero/mentor/personal friend of mine, Alison Suen.)
“The Sexual Politics of Meat is also the assumption that men need meat, have the right to meat, and that meat eating is a male activity associated with virility.”—Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat. (If you haven’t read it, you should.) Eating meat represents the complete control of another (non-human) person’s body. The fact that many men (and women) presume this dominance over others produces a mindset which allows for the continued subjugation of others through an imbalance of power. Why should we not abuse those who are weaker than we are, if it gives us some menial gain?
- Animal agriculture is exploitation of female reproductive systems.
Think about it. Where does all the meat we eat come from? Well, I’ll give you a hint. It doesn’t come from animals who mate naturally, produce offspring, overpopulate, and are then taken at the end of a long and fruitful life. Nope, sadly it’s pretty much the opposite. In fact, animals are forcibly bred to overproduce, kept in deplorable conditions, and often are artificially inseminated to produce more offspring rapidly. (Yeah, that link was pro-artificial insemination, creepy, right?)
Not only are female animals the producers, quite literally, of all the meat we eat, but the other most popular animal products, dairy and eggs, are (at risk of stating the incredibly obvious) produced from female reproductive organs as well. In dairy farms, cows are strapped to what industries disturbingly nickname “rape racks” and artificially inseminated to produce calves who are taken from them and shipped off to veal factories so humans can consume their milk. Could there possibly be anything more horrific than the idea of children being taken from mothers so that someone else can harvest their milk? Well, possibly the idea of eating someone’s period, as many folks do with chickens, but that’s honestly just more disgusting to me than terror-inducing. Unless, of course, we recall the fact that egg-laying hens spend 95% of their lives in cages so small they cannot even spread their wings, at which point the fear is unimaginable.
Female reproductive systems are the cogs in the capitalist machine that is animal agriculture. Given the media’s tendency to compare women to meat, shouldn’t we as feminists consider the implications of our disregard for the exploitation of these female animals? Doesn’t our affirmation of the industry (through our purchases) hurt our cause? Personally, I think it does. Besides, moving on to my next point…
- Feminism should be inclusive, not exclusive.
I think I’ve established by now that equal consideration of interests for one group at the expense of another is not, to my mind, a very feminist notion. If we are to say that all women deserve the right to live peacefully, do we really mean only rich women? Or white women? Or straight women? No, we mean all women. Critiques of earlier feminist movements have been exactly that—its exclusivity. It focused on the rights of certain groups (i.e. rich/middle class white women) and ignored many voices in the process. But happily, the idea of an intersection between sexism and other forms of institutionalized oppression revolutionized feminist thought and theory (thus, the third wave was born). In the past two decades, the feminist movement has expanded to include women of color, LGBT individuals, impoverished women, and many other marginalized individuals, voices who previously had been largely absent from feminist discourse. The foundation for this wonderful but drastic change was the idea that everyone can benefit from feminism. Because that’s what feminism should be about.
But what about animals? Can they benefit from feminism too? Well, that’s entirely up to us feminists. Personally, given that animals and the planet are suffering as a result of the patriarchal societies that rule our world, I think it is absolutely necessary to consider animals as a part of our movement. If we truly claim to abhor oppression, what right do we have to continue exploiting animals?
In the past, I have been very reluctant to call out my feminist friends on their meat-eating. (Well, let’s be real. If they have the misfortune of being my friend in real life, I have most certainly called them out. But when I say “friends,” I probably should say acquaintances, professional relationships and people I’ve never met.) After all, how could I call myself a feminist if I criticized what women ate? (There are certainly enough people doing that already.) But it is not what we eat, my friends, it is who. And most likely that flesh on your plate is one of a female body, finding herself there after years of torture and forced breeding, her reproductive capabilities exploited, her children stolen from her, and eventually institutionally murdered for no reason other than the patriarchal system’s capitalist demand for her muscle tissue.
But, if there’s anything I’ve learned about feminism, it’s that telling women how they could be better feminists is not usually a very feminist thing to do. And therein lies my problem. I can’t tell women they are not feminists if they eat meat, because to criticize women about whether or not they are doing feminism “right” is exactly the problem we had with second and first-wave feminism: that is, that it excluded many women and instead dictated how a “real feminist” looks and acts. That is not my intention at all. I know many feminists who are meat-eaters, and many vegans who are FAR from my accepted standard when it comes to feminism. All I ask is that we calmly consider our actions, because every time we eat meat, we are supporting the meat industry, whether we like to admit it or not.
Is the exploitation of female animals the most pressing issue in feminism? Perhaps not. But is definitely one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of suffering and oppression in the world without making it a full-time job. I understand that sometimes getting used to a vegan diet can be challenging (Trust me, I left for Nicaragua just a month after becoming vegan. I spent five months eating nothing but rice, beans, and avocado.), so be sure to ease into and don’t take steps you’re uncomfortable with. But if you want to reduce the amount of oppression your life causes, transitioning to a plant-based diet is necessary. Meat, dairy, and eggs oppress animals, they oppress us, and they oppress the planet.
Thank you for this provocative and inspirational article. It has been difficult for animal rights advocates who were also feminists and/or civil-rights activists and/or environmentalists and/or gay-rights activists, etc. to to get their other communities to take animal rights seriously. Leaders of the other movements have seemed to think that endorsing the idea that other species have a claim on our compassion is to trivialize social justice movements in general. This goes back decades. However, there is no reason to think that social causes are in competition with one another; in fact, quite the opposite is often true – at least when it comes to animal rights donors, who tend to be progressive on many fronts, even if the other fronts are not sympathetic to animals. (The result is that animal causes receive only one penny of each charitable dollar given in the U.S.)
You are familiar with the writings of Carol Adams, who is most famous for THE SEXUAL POLITICS OF MEAT. You may wish to read the works of the late eco-feminist Marti Kheel, who combined animal defense, feminism, and a form of deep ecology in her views and theories.