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Feminspire | April 18, 2014

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Does Fighting for Equality Mean Fighting for Animals, Too?

Does Fighting for Equality Mean Fighting for Animals, Too?

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.”

—Alice Walker

I think the most fundamental goal of feminism is to eliminate all forms of oppression. Feminism concerns itself with beliefs and theories that manifest themselves in activism, daily actions, lifestyle. I believe feminism aims to examine all forms of domination, whether based on gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, or some other constructed difference from the privileged identity. Does feminism examine the domination and oppression of other species or of nature in general? I think it should, with the result being the refusal to consume animal bodies or any animal products extracted at the cost of the animal’s suffering. I do not consider this ethic or lifestyle something that should or could be applied universally. This is an ethic for those with a choice, perhaps an ethic that should be adopted by privileged industrialized societies with access to a smorgasbord of dietary options.

“When I use the term ‘ethical vegetarianism‘ here, I mean the view that we ought not to eat animals, not merely because it is in the interests of human beings to refrain from doing so, for example, for nutritional reasons, but at least partly for the sake of the animals.”

—Cathryn Bailey from We Are What We Eat: Feminist Vegetarianism and the Reproduction of Racial Identity

In my view, feminism works to subvert the oppression and unequal treatment of women by revealing the Platonic-Christian mass delusion of the God, Man, woman, animal hierarchy of being. My ethical vegetarianism, as a sort of applied and extrapolated feminism, works to subvert the oppression of animals by revealing the Platonic-Christian and Social Darwinian mass delusion that there is an inherent hierarchy of value imposed on all life forms that rationalizes animals as edible. Feminism also identifies and rejects the set of dualisms associated with the hierarchical thinking of patriarchy: culture/nature; male/female; self/other; rationality/emotion; humans/animals. I, as a vegetarian, reject the separation of human and animal and any corresponding notion of human superiority in general or for select groups of humans.

My ethical objection to humans as “special” or inherently “more valuable” than any other species flies in the face of Biblical teachings and Social Darwinism alike. Western culture is told either that God made “mankind in [His] image, in [His] likeness, so that [he] may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). Or we attack the body and praise the mind while we are told by Plato to emphasize the “rational” and our unique ability to “heroically” transcend our animal bodies to reclaim our true and celestial home in the stars. We hear over and over that “[c]onsciousness or mind is … immortal and godlike, and humans share in the divine nature through the possession of the mind, while the body is the source of mortality and mutability. The soul, mind, or consciousness is alien to earth and body.” (Rosemary Radford Ruether from Gaia & God) And then we remember that women were also constructed and subordinated by this ideology as more red in tooth and claw, sexualized, emotional, vulnerable, of the body, an object. And likewise, animals are objectified as “meat.” The thought of animals as instruments of human beings or as a means for man’s ends sounds creepily familiar to God’s proclamation of woman being made for man. And so one reason for ethical vegetarianism unfolds from the concerns of feminism with domination. The philosophy of a hierarchy of beings has justified our consumption of animals and our oppression of “Others” in the form of women or other oppressed human groups.

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“The analysis of oppression of nonhuman animals is based on a variety of women-animal connections: for example, sexist-naturist language, images of women and animals as consumable objects, pornographic representations of women as meat.”

—Karen Warren from Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What it is and Why it Matters)

Whatever the racist and sexist tyrannical groups of history have wished to deny and displace from the self they have constructed into an “Other” and affiliated with animals. “If animals belong to man to do with as he wishes, if, further, they deserve this treatment because of their lowly place on the hierarchy of being, and if certain groups of people are in the animal category, too, then the justification for exploitation is complete.” (Bailey) For almost everywhere we find an example of repugnant racism we will also find an assigned “womanliness” or animalistic nature. Man as God was made to stomp upon and consume the world.

“Racist, somatophobic arguments have rested upon the view that animals were different in kind and subordinate to human beings … The logical next step, then, was to offer arguments and evidence that various other groups were either closer to animals or within the category itself.”

—Bailey

During the early 20th century, many switched from a hierarchy of being anchored in the Judeo-Christian tradition to a hierarchy justified by the misconception of evolution founded by social Darwinists that led to the infamous practice of eugenics and the ill-treatment of animals. Evolution does not support this hierarchy of beings, this anthropocentric speciesism defined as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” (Peter Singer from Animal Liberation). Social Darwinists are responsible for spreading the misconception that evolution results in life as a procession of superiority, “starting with single-celled organisms, then invertebrate s… and so on up to “Man,” the apparent [pinnacle] of evolution by virtue of his brain size, self-consciousness, or some other privileged quality” (Christopher Manes from The Ecocriticism Reader). But nature knows nothing of this notion of higher or lower, superior or inferior spectrum of beings. Neither complexity nor humanity is the goal of evolution, for evolution has no goals. “The Darwinian theory of natural selection … holds that variance results not from competition but adaptation to crisis. Darwin’s phrase, “survival of the fittest,” means not strongest but most fit, best suited to change” (William Howarth from The Ecocriticism Reader). What then makes humans better or more interesting, more deserving of protection and life then other creatures? Nothing.

“[I]n nature there … is no … first or second, better or worse. There is only the unfolding of life form after life form, more of less genealogically related, each with a mix of characteristics. To privilege intellect or self-consciousness, as opposed to photosynthesis, poisoned fangs, or sporogenesis, may soothe ancient insecurities about humanity’s place in the cosmos, but it has nothing to do with evolutionary theory and does not correspond to observable nature.”

—Manes

The separation of humans and animals, or superiority of humans over animals is a social mythology. My feminist vegetarianism posits all human animals and nonhuman animals on the same ontological plane; women, men, and animals are all seen as sensible beings with individual interests capable of pleasure and suffering. For the life of me, I cannot figure out the difference in value between an animal and myself. Is it that humans explore space while animals eat grass, or filter krill and sing? My answer would be “[a]nimals should not have to meet anthropocentric aesthetics or intellectual standards to deserve protection.” (Bailey) We are united with animals in our common condition of feeling pain and experiencing pleasure. Further, why should I consume one who does not wish to be consumed?

“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

—Dhammapada

Overall, feminist vegetarianism does not see the eating of animals as “necessary” or “natural,” but rather as related to the age-old antagonism between “feminine nature” and man. We recall the struggle of humanity to free itself from its “bondage” to nature by dominating and consuming it. We remember the tendency of culture to affiliate woman with nature or any constructed “Other” as inferior and therefore associated with nature.. Animals, like all humans, are free-beings with intentions and volitions of their own. And just like we have realized with the various human groups, we have historically condemned “[w]e should not kill, torture, and exploit animals because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them” (Josephine Donovan from Animal Rights and Feminist Theory).

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Written by Sarah Sydney Lane

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jennifer-Elford/714525520 Jennifer Elford

    I love this. I became a vegan, and I completely agree that feminism should encompass ALL creatures in the circle of equality.

    • http://www.facebook.com/guffy.xux Steve Smith

      You do know plants are living organism right?

      • David

        I think you missed the whole point about the ability of humans and animals to suffer and experience pleasure…oh also a volition of their own. Let’s not be children. Plants do not scream out in agony when they are picked and I highly doubt that if we hooked them up to some sort of “scan” there would be a neural pulse indicating great suffering.

        • http://www.facebook.com/guffy.xux Steve Smith

          So because one can feel pain the other doesn’t its okay to eat one over the other?

          • ContrastingColours

            this is literally -the- most unoriginal argument I’ve ever heard and doesn’t even dignify a proper response.

          • http://www.facebook.com/guffy.xux Steve Smith

            Maybe you should educate your self then if you think that:

            http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,,-83446,00.html

  • Julia

    Absolutely fantastic article. Eternal props to the author. Feminists need to recognize the intersecting oppressions of women and animals. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  • tasnim

    this makes a good point, but i think we should focus on one battle at a time.

    • http://twitter.com/CoreyLeeWrenn Corey Lee Wrenn

      …these battles are entangled, it’s not a matter of which to prioritize, they all intersect and influence one another. Check out the work of Carol J. Adams or David Nibert.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lethacolleen Letha Myers

      once you start looking at all the varieties of oppression that abound in our world it’s clear they all overlap to a huge degree. recognizing where they don’t (overlap) is important — and acknowledging that it’s tempting to want to simplify (i.e., prioritize) in response to complexity is key — but there’s no taking apart the overall diffusion of oppression into various areas to deal with one by one. intersectionality is a reality. as John Muir said about nature/the environment: “when we try to pick apart anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/Chandra.Plainswalker.Nalaar Chandra Nalaar

    Every genocide,war or systematic discrimination starts first with making a particular group sub-human at the level of animals. If we learn to have compassion for animals how much more so for our fellow human.Is the man who beats his wife and kids not also the man who kicks his dog? We must learn above all things to cultivate compassion for all living beings.

  • M-É

    What I think this article fails to address is the PLETHORA OF SEXIST BULLSHIT that has been done by animal rights activists. I would have liked for the author to articulate a critique of that, too. Would have been a more complex and interesting read.

  • http://twitter.com/CoreyLeeWrenn Corey Lee Wrenn

    Not sure why the term “vegetarianism” is used instead of veganism. Vegetarianism still entails immense suffering, exploitation, and death….it’s honestly no better than omnivorism. Regardless, thank you for covering the issue. No group on earth is more oppressed than Nonhuman Animals.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kevynn.gomez Kevynn Gomez

      I agree 100 percent. That is exactly why I transitioned to a vegan diet after two and a half years of vegetarianism. Although vegetarianism sounds acceptable in theory, the disgusting and inhumane practices of the food industry negate any compassion inherent in denying meat in favor of eggs or dairy; it is just as bad. I also think in such a modern world, at least here in America we have the privilege of having access to so many non-animal products that are both healthy and delicious. It took me a few years for everything to “click”, but now I hope others will begin to see this truth as well.

  • Monalisa Gomyde

    Great post!

  • Anon

    A lot of websites on feminism also contain vegan stuff. And that’s where I disagree with them. To be clear : I perfectly agree that animals are treated like shit, that they’re killed in the worst way possible. But I don’t agree with veganism. First, they tend to totally ignore the fact that it’s not easy to totally change your diet (some people, like me, even CAN’T : I’ve tried, and that just makes me sick. A friend of mine would probably die if she did because she has a serious genetic illness, and basically, she’s still called a monster by vegans…). Some people can’t afford it (don’t have enough time to cook, or gather everything you need to have a balanced diet) of just can’t get the necessary products (like if they are only sold in a big town, which can be kilometers away).
    Living in the countryside, I seriously cannot imagine what I’d tell my neighbours. “Hey dude, you know those cows you raise for a living? Stop that shit.” They don’t have any education, they only own their farm. How are they supposed to live without selling milk and meat? Are they supposed to drive 1ookm each week to buy food?
    So, as much as I agree with the fact that we have to rethink the meat industry (and eat a lot less meat, because we don’t need as much as we eat today), I disagree with the “eat only vegetables, don’t eat fish and eggs” etc. To me, vegans trying to force their diet on others are as bad as pro-lifers trying to force women to carry unwanted pregnancy. You can’t just decide for everyone else. You can’t just ignore illnesses, problems people have, or just the fact that they don’t want it (even if I do require meat not to be sick, if I didn’t I’d probably eat some anyway).

    • Louisa

      I see your point, but I didn’t understand this article as much as an attack on meat-eating/ animal-product-consuming people, but more as a plea to consider animals’ suffering and possible alternatives. Perhaps I, being vegan myself, have read it differently.
      I don’t think the point is to impose a certain lifestyle on other people, but to make them aware of something that they might not have been aware of before.
      I am lucky enough to live in a city (though not a big one), in which I can rather easily purchase the kinds of products I need. I am lucky enough to have a roommate who is basically vegan herself. I am lucky enough to live 20 minutes away from a vegan restaurant. And I am lucky enough to be able to afford being vegan (although I do save money in other aspects, which appear less important to me).
      I am well aware that not everyone can/ wants to live in this way and I respect that. I know, I am not the writer of the article and therefore perhaps not the right person to respond to this. But this is how I understood the article and I thought it was written in a very respectful manner.
      Although you may be addressing merely the writer of this article, your statement makes vegans look like people who try to enforce their views on other people. and I just feel like having to say that I know quite a few vegans and none of them do. I, on the other hand, have been ‘informed’ by plenty of non-vegans/ non-vegetarians (and on occasions not very kindly) about the unhealthiness, unnaturalness or mere craziness of my lifestyle.
      This is, of course, not your fault, but I somehow just feel like bringing to attention the other side of the coin. I am tired of being ridiculed based on my dietary choices, which is why I loved this article so much. I am just so happy someone has finally written something in support of veganism, which, as it seems to me, doesn’t happen very often.

  • The Beef Girl

    I’m probably not going to convince you unless you want to be convinced–that is, after all, how politics works most of the time. But I couldn’t just let this go.

    I am an active and credentialed–and serious–feminist. I also work selling humanely raised, pastured beef at farmers’ markets. I’m really glad to see that a bunch of people have already picked up on the sexism going on in a lot of animal activism, so I’ll leave that alone. Let’s tackle the moral dimension, then.

    There are two kinds of Othering, since you decided to use that word. There is the “other” that is opposite–black and white, male and female, able and disabled, etc. There is also the “other” that has become “us”–á la “affirmative action isn’t necessary anymore because we’re all equal now.” Both overlook the complexity of the situation, which is ALWAYS both and neither.

    In this context, I will tell you what I think–and I’ve worked this out after toying with vegetarianism, raising and killing livestock of all stripes and spots, and arguing with a lot of evangelizing vegans at farmers’ market.

    Humans aren’t inherently better than animals, but to the extent that we enable their comfortable lives and humane deaths, we are entitled to eat them. Think of the abortion argument (I’ve had one, btw): because women must sacrifice so much to carry a pregnancy and raise a child, they have the right to decide if they’re actually going to do it. Raising animals is a lot of work, and the ANIMALS get a lot out of it. We feed and water them. We keep them healthy. We protect them from predators. We ensure the continuation of their species. We provide them with a better life than they would likely have had in the wild–if it is perhaps a little shorter. In return, we are responsible for slaughtering them humanely and eating them respectfully. Sounds pretty fair to me.

    Of course, that’s describing the ideal, which is why I avoid eating meat when I don’t know how it was raised. But to condemn all meat eating because of some stupid things that industrial agriculture has done is, in my opinion, extreme. People have demonstrated that they are capable of raising and killing and eating animals respectfully. I don’t see a reason we shouldn’t strive to do that more often, rather than throwing up our hands, despairing of our ability to treat animals right, and locking farm animals away in the wild, to look at through binoculars occasionally and avoid touching with our polluting hands. The history of Liberia might be illustrative in this case–the answer to racism isn’t dumping black people back in Africa. It’s quite a bit more difficult than that.

    Because then what would happen? Guess what–they would mostly die of exposure or disease or predation, or they’d turn into major pests (pigs will eat babies if you aren’t looking) and we’d kill them. What a waste. Farm animals have evolved to live with humans who care for them and kill them–and humans have evolved with them. Farm animals aren’t the Other, but neither are they Us. We are interdependent, and denying that fact won’t serve anyone well.

  • Théo

    Although I respect much vegetarians and vegans and could maybe switch to it one day, I refuse to confound it with feminism.
    First thing, feminism is about gender equality, not merely fighting oppression. I say this because fighting oppression doesn’t suffice. We also need to change our culture to make women reach all sort of heading positions.
    Secondly, we cannot demand that animals and humans be equal. We have to respect them, yes! But we don’t have to give them human rights, because it’s not even relevant.
    So while you can relate very easily feminism to anti-homophobia (I do it a lot), anti-racism, etc (because it’s about equality among humans), you can’t do it in the same way with animal rights.
    And I also don’t like the sentence “feminism aims to examine all forms of domination, whether based on gender, race, class, sexuality, nation”. No, it does not. Keep different names for related fights. If you want to end all these forms of domination, good for you, you’re coherent. But do not confound. And don’t forget that there also a bunch of anti-feminists among anti-racism activists or among communists (who are fighting against class domination and the war among nations).
    You see those fights are related but it doesn’t give you the right to change the meaning of words. Because I see all my political ideas as coherent and I’m a feminist it doesn’t give me the right to say that you should all be environmentalist or socialist or whatever otherwise you’re not true feminists!

    • Louisa

      There are different definitions as to what the term ‘feminism’ means. Different feminists have described and coined it in different ways throughout its history. Therefore, there is not one inherent meaning to the word (as with most words, by the way). As I understand it, in US history, the Women’s Rights Movement was actually very much linked to the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the beginning. That’s just one example of how the fights for gender and race equality have been linked. The lines are often blurry.
      I do think that the question asked here is a valid one. By the way, if you look up, you will see that the title poses a question, not a demand. And nowhere does this article say that every feminist ‘must’ be also vegan, vegetarian or an animal’s rights activist.
      One reason why I think that this article is such a great one is that the author used various sources to support her argument. It is, doubtlessly her argument, but neither is it undifferentiated nor does it impose the author’s personal views on anyone. That’s how I see it, anyhow.