Warning: Some quoted material contains offensive language.
Who gets to define sexism? Who gets to decide the utility of sexism as a tactic in social activism? Is it the individual women who participate? Is it the feminist community cognizant of patriarchal oppression? What about influential men leading the social movement?
James McWilliams, a well-known vegan personality in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, posted a brief criticism of PETA’s “Sexiest Vegan” contest that essentially objectified women to draw attention to the objectification of other animals. I was extremely excited to see an important figure in our movement discussing this issue. But my excitement was short-lived, quickly turning into a nightmare.
Unfortunately, the winner of the contest contacted McWilliams, complaining about his criticism, so he quickly backtracked on his statement. His taking into consideration this young woman’s personal experiences and motivations is admirable. However, he then followed up her narrative with some very troubling comments:
“There’s a pragmatism and level of self-awareness here that I really appreciate. Sex does sell, there is no doubt, and perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. Either way, Wise’s reasoning reminds us that, when it comes to the project of reducing animal suffering, we’re all wracked by humility, unsure what works, doing whatever we can to make life better for animals.”
In the comments section, he furthers:
“My “problem,” as it were, is that the moment I confront an “intersecting oppression” is the moment that the intersection becomes clogged with so many oppressions I lose sight of both hope and the fact that my primary goal is just to get people to stop eating animals. In other words, I can no longer get my head around the problems we face.”
This is why the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is so toxic for women. 80% of our movement is female, and yet it is led by men. Most of our theorists, organization leaders, authors, and personalities are men. They dictate what is appropriate and legitimate in our movement, and that often means pushing women into mundane, uncelebrated roles behind the scenes, encouraging women to take their clothes off “for the animals,” and ignoring or excusing the rampant sexism in the movement.
The exploitation of women has become a taken-for-granted and normalized tactic. We don’t stop to question if it is even effective (I challenge that it is not). Neither do we stop to question what impact this is having on women (mountains of scientific research points to the role sexual objectification in the media and the trivialization of violence against women has on the mental and physical health of women and the social status of women).
The trivialization of women’s oppression in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement speaks to a larger social acceptance of devaluing and dismissing women. It’s normal to treat women in this way, and it’s normal to ignore their interests. Imagine if we replaced “women” with another oppressed social group. Suddenly it becomes very clear how horrific McWilliams’s statements are. From the Vegan Feminist Agitator:
[ . . . ]those words felt like a punch to the gut. In a post about misogyny in the vegan movement, he posited that “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism.” What? What? Insert the word racism: is this statement still acceptable? Given how consistently focused on justice and equality most of his work is, this felt like a true betrayal. Being rather used to disappointment in my fellow humans, it is rare that I cry about such things but I cried about this one. This was a fellow vegan, a thoughtful one, too, and he was waffling about sexism for “the greater good.”
I immediately wrote about the incident on my blog, where I suggested that McWilliams apologize. I also tweeted about it, charging that McWiliams was exemplifying patriarchy in Nonhuman Animal rights by protecting misogyny and legitimating sexism. But no apology was to be had. Instead, McWilliams swiftly followed up with another post to his blog, declaring that he was ceasing online activism, specifically referencing my remarks. He accused me of attention-seeking self-promotion and divisiveness. He was careful to frame himself as a sincere activist who does everything “in the interest of helping animals” and “from the heart.” He is the victim, I am the villain. Instead of thinking reflexively about his problematic comments, McWilliams claims his skin is too thin, and dealing with these issues publicly is too difficult. What a missed opportunity.
Playing the victim card worked… and it worked well. Swarms of sympathetic readers rushed to his aid. Most were more concerned with soothing his hurt feelings (which is typical in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement which tends to put male leaders on a pedestal) than they were with engaging the important issues that had been raised. Feminists were cast in the dismissive trope that we’re all too familiar with: nasty, jealous, attention-needy, feminazi blow-hards. As to be expected with any public criticism of sexism, the personal attacks came and they came with a fury. So many of the comments came from men, I literally felt ill reading them. The most common complaint was that my honest criticisms were some sort of “attack,” nothing more than ad hominems spouted off from some young, power-hungry female careerist. It became about me, not the ideas I represented.
As the misogyny poured into his blog’s comment section, McWilliams himself has remained largely silent. He engaged a few commenters who were there to support him. He piped in one more time with a “P.S.” to clarify that it was in fact my tweet that was his “breaking point.” Still no recognition of his sexist comments, and absolutely no discussion of the rampant hate that was quickly filling up the comments section. In remaining silent, McWilliams not only perpetuates (and further legitimates) sexism in Nonhuman Animal rights, he is creating an atmosphere of hostility and harassment against women. That harassment continued to escalate. Not content with commenting, some took it upon themselves to troll my blog and tweet me nasty things like: “I think you’re a piece of shit. #myopinion #loudmouthbitch” (Tom Kelly Sr., owner of The Law Dawg. Tweet has since been deleted).
We should have a zero tolerance policy for oppression of all kinds. We should have a zero tolerance policy for respected individuals in social movements (and anyone else for that matter) who apologize, excuse, justify, ignore, trivialize, or otherwise legitimate sexism, misogyny, racism, or any other form of oppression.
McWilliams, like the other men who lead the movement, enjoy a position of privilege. They don’t have to worry about pressure to objectify themselves “for the animals” in a world that sees them as a consumable resource. They don’t have to personally experience misogyny. It’s easy for them to postulate from their protected position about whether or not sexist advocacy is acceptable or useful. I say it’s time for women to speak, it’s time for women’s voices to be heard, it’s time for women’s experiences to be respected. It’s time to stop throwing women under the bus and recognize that oppression is intersectional.
Fortunately, I am not alone. More and more women and their allies are standing up to this violence and toxicity. We’re putting our words into action. I have just launched the Vegan Feminist Network. Here, advocates can come together as a community to support one another, pool resources, and help educate our community about the importance of intersectionality in our anti-oppression efforts.
Still not convinced that misogyny dictates animal rights? Peruse this sampling of comments left on McWilliams’s blog in regards to my criticism of McWiliams’s statements:
June 27, 2013 at 8:05 am
[ . . . ] petty name-calling.
June 26, 2013 at 7:23 am
[ . . . ] isnt the ad hominem argument the recourse of the lazy thinker who does not want to engage in the effort of uncovering the rational or factual fault in an argument or position? I am not sure, if I were you. that I would even validate it by acknowledging it.
John Pippin says:
June 26, 2013 at 8:07 am
I think you are wrong about the overwrought label of sexist and misogynist sticking. This kind of silly crap has a shelf life and will fade.
Melissa Tedrowe says:
June 26, 2013 at 8:19 am
People write nasty things about almost anything that appears in print . . . self-censoring in response seems to be giving those people tremendous power.
June 26, 2013 at 8:34 am
Is there a way readers can respond to the person’s tweet?
June 28, 2013 at 11:33 am
He discussed an action many consider sexist (PETA’s campaign), and pondered whether it could ever be worthwhile. [ . . . ] And for that thought crime, he got thugged.
June 26, 2013 at 8:50 am
It is so disappointing that vegans and animal rights advocates must constantly turn on each other rather than presenting a united front. There are too few of us in the world for such unproductive behavior.
Jenny Brown says:
June 26, 2013 at 9:03 am
People can be assholes, plain and simple. Many in this movement take more time criticizing others than they do pursing their own ideas of activism for animals.
Lea TheTower says:
June 26, 2013 at 9:28 am
[ . . . ] the Animal Rights community was specialy prone to prejudices and name-calling. I still don’t understand why this community who needs more than anything to be united is accepting ridiculous attitudes like this one. [ . . . ] I have been [ . . . ] shocked to meet this kind of hurtful, easy, unusfull comments.
Kimberly Roemer says:
June 26, 2013 at 9:49 am
This saddens me greatly as, like politics, animal rights work is lessened when qualified good people leave to avoid all of this useless twaddle that accomplishes nothing. [ . . . ] If our movement is truly about peace and respect, how about we start by showing respect to each other and choose our words carefully.
J.B. Bird says:
June 26, 2013 at 9:51 am
[ . . . ] come back and not let the blog end when the PC thought police lob molotov cocktails at your computer. You’re being nailed by the thought police and they deserve some serious push back. [ . . . ] You’re being bullied into silence, and as a loyal reader, I hope you will fight back.
Ellen K says:
June 26, 2013 at 9:53 am
The accusation against you is incomprehensible [ . . . ] Talk about selective and poor reading and comprehension skills on that part of that critic [ . . . ]
June 26, 2013 at 10:11 am
I find the accusation that you are “protecting misogyny & legitimating sexism” pathetic, just pathetic, and in itself hardly worthy of response. You have no need to apologize for your musings on sexism. You have no need to apologize for being a man, for having a man’s perspective, or for allegedly being part of the alleged “male leadership in Animal Rights”.
June 26, 2013 at 10:16 am
The entire intellectual leadership of this movement — such as it is — is more concerned with this kind of bullshit than with animals. None of you matter, that’s what you don’t get. You’re here arguing about which -ism is being perpetrated by whom before the plane has even rolled onto the runway.
June 26, 2013 at 10:16 am
Don’t let the real sexist get you down.
June 26, 2013 at 11:02 am
[ . . . ] there will always be the fringe, the extremists. The focus becomes the fight against conventional structure, resulting in losing sight of the TRUE fight and enemy – in this case the animals and their oppressors. [ . . . ] I think you are giving this person way too much power. There are many [ . . . ] who have no clue who she is nor would agree with her extreme assessment of your comment. I certainly never heard of her, or agree with her.
June 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm
If Wrenn really cared about a civil discussion regarding the issue, she should have started one. Not make sweeping assumptions about someone’s character based on him pondering how sexism plays into AR.[. . . ] She chose to make the discussion about that and now SHE’s the victim? Ridiculous.
June 26, 2013 at 2:04 pm
I think Wrenn should have voiced her concerns about James’ statement with kindness and without trying to make him a scapegoat for the unbalanced representation of women in the animal rights movement. [ . . . ] Please can we take all this energy and channel it toward alleviating the problem and NOT toward attacking the champions of our own cause???
M Ashley Capps says:
June 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm
[ . . . ] I want to express my dismay at what I see as a disturbing pattern in Wrenn’s so-called activism and performative indignation. [ . . . ] Wrenn is so used to slinging defamatory labels like “sexist,” “racist,” and “white supremacist” at her fellow vegan activists that she no longer recognizes how serious and offensive such accusations are, nor how wildly inappropriate [ . . . ] She attempts to grow her relentlessly self-riveted online presence by defining herself in opposition and superiority to other activists
Sheri Lucas says:
June 29, 2013 at 12:16 am
[ . . . ] though I already had a sense of her sensationalism and her condescending elitism, I was still surprised by what I saw on her page. She is embarrassing herself, embarrassing feminism, embarrassing animal advocacy, and embarrassing the university she is a student and instructor at (she often presents herself as a professor, but usually, that term is reserved for someone with a higher status than Wrenn holds).
June 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm
No one listen to this lady. [ . . . ] As with the AR movement, it seems the women’s rights movement is also imploding from (dare I say it?) jealous women who have decided the very fact that sex does sell is sexist.
Dedra Lapidus says:
June 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm
Anyone who read it in context would have to be INSANE to call you sexist.
Joan Bollaert says:
June 27, 2013 at 6:17 am
A self absorbed twit tweeted. So what?
June 27, 2013 at 6:50 am
nasty people just always look for someone/something to pick on but it’s really them that have problems. instead of picking on good people they should focus more on what they can do to make this world a better place for everybody.
June 30, 2013 at 1:30 pm
My God, that woman is still Twittering on. What is her problem? Is she not satisfied that she has forced a much valued animal rights activist away from the arena where he was actually doing some good. What narcissism. She seems to think that she is more important than the animals, who are, as we have our petty squabbles, suffering and dying. Truly sickening.
Gabriel Gudding says:
June 26, 2013 at 1:17 pm
This person traffics in mean-spirited denunciation. It’s petty and it’s divisive. And it’s, well, profoundly stupid.
June 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm
I am appalled by that malicious tweet…a grossly insensitive action that was, IMO, absolutely uncalled for.
The featured image is PETA’s “Sexiest Vegan Next Door” contest winner.