Why animal rights are (still) a feminist issue
- Published: 13 April 2010
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An 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.
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 http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics/2432117840/ issued under Creative Commons Licence http://www.creativecommons.org