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Why animal rights are (still) a feminist issue

dairy2flickrAn egalitarian society will never come about while sections of it are oppressed, whether on the basis of their sex/gender, race, ability, sexual orientation – or species, writes Katrina Fox.

Recently I attended ‘F’, the first feminist conference in Sydney, Australia for 15 years. During the course of the weekend, a jam-packed program featured a diverse range of panel discussions and workshops.

An attempt had been made to include at least one person of colour on the panels, the majority of speakers acknowledged and discussed white privilege, and some workshops were held by men, sex workers and trans people. The conference had a policy of inclusion and was open to all.

So far so good. But while progress had been made on some fronts, there was one area that had fallen off the agenda and indeed, it seems, feminist consciousness, and that is speciesism: the assigning of different values or rights to beings on the basis of their species membership.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the catering, which included a stall selling meat pies, including veal, an abundance of dairy milk for tea and coffee and a conference dinner that was held at a non-vegetarian restaurant. All in all, it added up to an epic F for Fail.

Failure, that is, to see the intersectionality between various forms of oppression – in this case, between female humans and non-humans.

How do feminism and animal rights issues intersect?

While all animals suffer under the system of intensive or factory farming, the females of the species usually experience the most heinous and prolonged abuses:

  • Battery hens are imprisoned in tiny cages with several other hens. Their beaks are cut off with a hot wire guillotine, an extremely painful process and many have great difficulty eating properly for the rest of their short lives. They are forced to lay egg after egg and after a year, their bodies ‘spent’, they are dragged from the cages, stuffed into crates, trucked to the abattoir and shackled upside down on a conveyor belt to await slaughter. Many suffer multiple fractures during this process.
  • Dairy is an industry built on the control of the reproductive systems of female non-humans (surely a feminist issue given the movement’s emphasis on fighting for women’s rights to control their own bodies and reproductive systems). Cows are kept perpetually pregnant, so that their babies (whom they carry for nine months, much like human mothers) and their babies’ milk can be stolen from them. Cows bellow with grief at the loss of their young. Female calves’ horns and extra teats are cut off with no anaesthetic and in some areas the same happens to their tails. Milking machines attached to the cow’s body result in painful infections of the teats such as mastitis. The cycle of forced pregnancy, birth, theft and grief continues until the cow's body can give no more and she is shipped off to be slaughtered.
  • Female pigs are forcibly impregnated and kept in ‘sow stalls’ – tiny spaces not big enough for them to turn around, where they often go insane with boredom as they are social creatures. They are kept like this for life, constantly impregnated. After giving birth, they are forced to nurse their babies from the confines of gestation crates where they can barely reach them.
  • Animal rights groups have obtained video footage from undercover activists showing abbatoir workers sexually abusing female animals.

That’s not to say that male animals don’t suffer, of course, including a non-human mother’s male babies who are considered ‘byproducts’ with little monetary value:

  • Male calves in Australia are slaughtered for veal and in other countries are destined for the veal crate, designed to be so small that they can’t turn around so their muscles atrophy. They are deprived of essential nutrients to ensure they are pale and ‘tender’.
  • Male chicks born in battery operations are simply disposed of – usually by being shredded alive in a macerator.

So it’s disappointing, not to mention sadly ironic, that a feminist conference invited a keynote speaker (Greens MP Lee Rhiannon, a vegan) to talk about abortion rights at the official dinner. The irony being that ‘dinner’ involved attendees putting someone else’s body (probably female) and secretions (definitely female) into their mouths while talking about their own oppression and fight for reproductive autonomy.

Why has animal rights fallen off the modern feminist agenda?

Back in the ’70s and ’80s there was a much stronger link between feminism and animal rights and an acknowledgement of the links between the two. So what happened?

What does the term ‘ecofeminism’ and its association with animals and the environment conjure up in the minds of today’s feminists?

Well, some will associate it with essentialist ideas of women being connected to the earth or the anti-porn, anti-sex-work and transphobic rhetoric of some ecofeminists. It’s fair to say that blanket generalisations that all porn is bad, all sex workers are victims whether they know it or not, and undergoing surgical and hormonal treatment to transform your sex or gender is unnatural have alienated many feminists, especially queer and younger feminists.

That’s not to say, however, that the discourses within ecofeminism have not moved on – indeed much ecofeminist theory has pointed out how problematic and regressive concepts of essentialism are.

But while feminists writing in mainstream media and indeed much of the feminist blogosphere focus on raunch culture, body image and analysing pop culture – the ‘hip’ and ‘trendy’ topics – ecofeminist theory gets left by the wayside, relegated unfairly to the ‘old-school’ or ‘uncool’ box when in fact it’s more relevant than ever.

Of course it could be argued too that animal rights groups such as PETA have had a part to play in the disengagement of feminism and animal rights due to their adverts that are viewed by many to be sexist and in some cases, racist.

Race issues

The issue of race of course ties in with the intersectionality of oppressions.

In her new book Sistah Vegan, in which black female vegans talk about how they perceive nutrition, food, ecological sustainability, health and healing, animal rights, parenting, social justice, spirituality, hair care, race, sexuality, womanism, freedom, and identity, author Breeze Harper quite rightly points out the white racialised consciousness and white privilege of the mainstream animal rights movement and the stereotype of vegan = white, skinny body.

Interestingly, these reflections in Sistah Vegan, which are from a diverse North American community of black-identified women of the African diaspora reveal that they have not necessarily come to veganism through animal rights. Instead many consider that they are actively decolonising their bodies by embracing a healthy whole foods or raw food veganism way of eating.

However, when promoting the message to go vegan – which I do and wholeheartedly believe it is the way forward to minimise harm to ourselves in terms of health, the environment and of course animals – it’s important for the white-dominated animal rights movement to consider issues of race and class, as well as gender: it may be cheaper to buy a McDonald’s so-called ‘Happy Meal’ than organic, fair-trade, cruelty-free foods. And as we know, the majority of people living in poverty are likely to be people of colour due to the institutionalised racism of western societies.

Building alliances and coalitions

This is why it’s important to build coalitions and raise awareness of the intersectionalities of oppression: to realise that our fight for justice as women, as feminists, is inextricably linked to racism, homo/transphobia, class and speciesism as well as the devastating destruction of the planet and the damage to our health through unethical corporations’ promotion of products that they deceitfully label ‘food’.

That’s not to say it’s an easy thing to do. Building alliances often means acknowledging our privileges and making major changes to our behaviour, actions and lifestyles. As Breeze Harper in her video Would You Harbor Me? points out: Transformation is not comfortable. It’s hard because much of how we build our identities is through processes that perpetuate privileges of gender, race and species membership.

Two things tend to happen, Harper says, when one person goes to another and says, “Your actions (whether they be sexist, racist, homo/transphobic or speciesist) are hurting me, I find them problematic – can we talk about it?”

The first is the person challenged goes on the defensive and refuses to acknowledge that what they are doing is impacting negatively on others. The second is that person may have an epiphany and then be consumed with shame or guilt at their lack of awareness and for having contributed to the suffering of others.

We all come to realisations at different points in our lives as our knowledge and awareness increases. So while as feminists we may be (finally) open to acknowledging that it’s not acceptable for us to be racist or homo/transphobic, this consciousness needs also to extend to us not being speciesist.

The multi-billion-dollar animal agriculture industries have done an outstanding job of promoting images of ‘happy cows’ willingly giving up their milk and concealing the torturous practices in all forms of animal farming, including those outlined earlier in this article.

Farmed animals feel pain, fear, loss, grief. By consuming their bodies and excretions we give our approval to them being tortured and abused. As feminists we must hold ourselves to ethical standards that align with and are considerate of the struggles of others, including non-humans, otherwise we are no better than the patriarchy that seeks to dominate and oppress us as women.

It’s not a case of fighting for EITHER human OR animal rights, for being involved in feminist causes OR animal causes. You don’t need to attend an anti-vivisection demonstration instead of starting up a rape crisis centre, but we can choose not to support the exploitation of non-humans in our day-to-day consumption – and especially at feminist conferences.

Image courtesy of Jenny Downing issued under Creative Commons Licence


+1 #22 Casey 2011-06-19 20:56
Ashame these movements only carry personal emotion centred on the selfish desire to feel at ease with one's self, and not constructive and cost-effective/ implementable ideas that would push these ideals forwards in the real-world, or come to some sort of compromise in terms of animal rights as mentioned above.

Would be nice if these feminists we have in Europe take a good long hard look at the 'religon of peace' they seem to be very quiet about; something that directly and would and has prolonged the oppression of women successfully via ideological indocrination. Something you'd think would be a higher priority, and far far more to the core and reasons of it's creation.

But no, lets look at the small things that gets us flustered and ignore the rest.

Prioritization. o/
0 #21 rachael 2011-04-21 14:11
Great article! Thank you for tying in institutionaliz ed racism and sexism as part of the domination of nature. This is a great lecture by the late Val Plumwood in which she speaks about the same issues.
0 #20 Alexander T 2011-02-16 22:32
Great great piece and mostly thoughtful and enlightening comments. Thank you thank you thank you for this!!!
0 #19 Kim 2011-02-13 11:04
One "-ism" that is ignored in this article is ageism: as in the age of the unborn. One can be quite feminist without demanding that a woman should have the right to unrestricted abortion. The original feminists (think Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) were not so narrow-minded; they believed in the rights of many different groups of people: women, the unborn, children who were already born, slaves (many early feminists were also abolitionists), and even men! Science is growing in leaps and bounds, and has been learning about prenatal life as well as animal life. Many know that a human heart begins beating about 18 days after conception, but are not aware that brain waves are detected at 6 weeks after conception. Read Prolife Feminism: Yesterday and's a real eye-opener.
+1 #18 Matt 2010-12-23 15:37
I know this comment was written many months ago, but I have to respond to "Thinker".
Please tell us about your expertise in this subject. I've spent my whole adult life (I'm 55) studying animal behavior, and dealing with animals, both domestic and wild.
I've never come across any information that shows that animals "dont think". I HAVE, however, encountered many people- though not experts- who think animals have no emotions.

If animals cannot think, then they would not fear. Most of us humans have seen animals run, cower from their aggressors, or even cower from non-aggressors when they've been abused or seen abuse or killing. Some of us have also seen them manage to LEARN to trust humans when they're repeatedly shown compassion by the humans around them. We've also seen them have those reactions towards only certain people, when they've learned, for example, that they are likely to be abused by men, but not women, or by a certain race, or by people who have shown fear toward them.

Some people will say animals dont enjoy touch, but that they perform for us, or seek affection only because they're hungry and know us to provide them with food. We also know this is untrue because we have watched animals who will not let their human feeder touch them, but will let only those they trust touch them. We've also watched animals who are fed by humans for years, but because of prior abuse by humans, may take years before they allow those humans to touch them.

We've seen animals exhibit madness, anxiety, or extreme lethargy for weeks or months after having watched others being killed or tortured in front of them. We've watched domestic and tamed wild animals go through obvious and severe depression after the loss of a friend, whether that friend was another animal or a human.

It goes on and on and on, but many folks just have a white-knuckled grip on their superiority. I hope you learn....and let go.
+2 #17 Gary Loewenthal 2010-04-29 02:25
We have a deplorable history of rationalizing our domination and mistreatment of others based on morally irrelevant or imagined differences between us and our victims. That is certainly the case with exploitation of animals. We are forever undervaluing animals and using their supposed lesser value as a pretense for enslaving them.

A few generations ago top scientists actually thought aimals were mere automatons that couldn't even feel pain. Fortunately nearly all scientists today recognize that as nonsense. But there's an important lesson there: We have a penchant for grossly undersestimatin g the abilities and intelligence of our victims, and there's nothing to suggest that we're beyond commiting that superficially self-serving error.

We declared that humans were the only species that had spindle cells, which are associated with emotions such as empathy. It is now known that other animals have them and it is thought they may exist in many species. We declared all nonhumans to be incapable of recgonizing themselves in the mirror. Until we found out that at least elephants and primates can. We declared that only humans could use words in original, symbolic ways. But now we know so can some birds. We declared humans as the only species that could use tools. But not only do primates and birds use tools, rats can be taught to use them.

In some tests, rats show more empathy than humans. Chickens grasp the concept of object permanence several months before humans babies get it. Cows, rabbits, and chickens grieve over lost companions, Cows and ducks have summoned humans to help a friend. Chickens, rabbits, dogs, pigs, and many other animals sacrifice their own comfort to help others, even strangers.

It doesn't matter if honhumans can't do quadratic equations or express philosophies. They want to live. They have the capacity to suffer and to feel happiness. They have profound wants that deeply affect their quality of life. They have more than enough sentience to warrant a moral obligation on our part to respect their interests.

If we want to show that we're superior, let us be superior in mercy, in compassion, in humility, in generosity, in kindness, not in exploitation and arrogance.
0 #16 Belinda 2010-04-28 08:36
It's interesting having come back to this article and reading the comments. I can't say I'm surprised at some initial reactions.

I am however, again reminded of a quote by Arthur Schopenhauer. Regardless of whether you think this is cliche, I still think it's valid:

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

Please put the defensiveness and personal gain (ie your taste buds) aside. Think about and research the issues raised above. Make your choices accordingly - and with knowledge.
0 #15 Nichola 2010-04-26 08:14
Thanks for helping to put this issue (back) on the feminist agenda, Katrina. Like you, I can scarcely believe it has been neglected for so long.

By coincidence, this is why Lawyers for Animals is joining with Victorian Women Lawyers for co-present a free forum in Melbourne on Thursday 20th May 2010 from 5.45pm, which will consider the intersections and parallels between animal rights (anti-speciesis m) and equal rights (including feminism) in society and law. Just check our website for details closer to the date:

Katrina, I'd especially like to get in touch with you about this event - my email is on our website...

As a natural feminist (egalitarian) it was a real enlightenment when I first learned about speciesism - and (unfortunately) I was BIG meat and dairy-lover before that time.

I am stunned that anyone can call themself a feminist, but claim that speciesism is a load of rubbish (eg. Sian). I presume they just don't understand the theory, because it's like opening a door to the truth, really. Once it is open, you can't rationally close it! For the benefit of those not yet so enlightened: in a nutshell, speciesism is the prejudice that humans practise toward other animals based on their differing physical attributes; which ignores their physiological, intellectual and emotional similarities. As Jeremy Bentham argued in 1789: it is the capacity to suffer, rather than the capacity to reason, which determines how all living creatures should be treated.

Just ask yourself: why does someone eat pigs/cows - which have the physiological, intellectual and emotional characteristics of young children (or intellectually impaired adults) - yet respect the value of similar human life? Or, why do people care for their dogs, but eat pigs/cows that have similar personalities and feelings? Ignoring superstitious (religious) beliefs, the only rational answer is: speciesism. We've (pretty much) all been guilty of it at some time in our lives, but fortunately, we are all capable of advancement. And the outlook is so positive for your health and the environment, too: please, don't be scared to take the first step, and good luck with your journey.

0 #14 Alex Melonas 2010-04-20 17:36
@ Thinker: As an empirical matter, we are animals -- that includes you, whether you are a boy, girl...(by your own standard, given that babies, the mentally handicapped, people who have suffered certain brain injuries, and so on, "cannot think, and are not self-aware", I could argue that people who advocate for the rights of the intellectually disabled or the senile are doing nothing but damaging human dignity and do nothing to further the cause of "human rights".)

@ Sian: If you believe that speciesism is ridiculous, refute it here:

@ Matt: Your argument begs the question: How do you justify using animals?

In answering that question, you will see where feminism, and anti-racism, etc. intersect. Historically, in the final analysis, our justification for using animals, man’s justification for using women, and a white persons justification for using black people, is premised on the principle of might makes right. Now, how "might" is defined shifts, and it is contextualized, but fundamentally, the key premise is that we can do X, so we are justified in doing so.
0 #13 Vivienne 2010-04-20 00:34
women should be able to empathise with animals more because they know about bonding with their young, feeding their families and about compassion. This is the way it should be, and female animals suffer greatly in our agricultural industries. However, the reality is that we are so urbanised and farms are such big businesses now that we don't get much contact with farm animals. They are in distant paddocks, in masses, or in factory sheds or feedlots. The best way to avoid cruelty is to go vegan. It's actually not so hard and the food is creative and tasty.

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