I’ve been a vegan for the last five years. I have always intuitively connected not using animal derived products to my feminist politics, but only recently was asked to articulate this relationship for a symposium at at local college. Once I dedicated time, thought, and research to the topic I found many different facets of the intersection, not only between speciesism and gender, but also race and class.
One approach to the topic examines notions of masculinity and femininity within our culture. Men are often denied emotion, feelings, compassion. Instead rationalization, hierarchy, and conquering are embedded within our notions of masculinity. Discussed in the works of Max Weber and Theodor Adorno, modernity has contained the thematic of dominating nature (or the feminine). In reading the work of Carol Adams, I learned that historically men have been the ones to consume meat and determine women’s consumption of meat, despite women’s work caring for the animals and preparing the food. So while manly men are associated with the active ‘beefing’ up, women are associated more with vegetables. Even in societies where food is more plentiful we can see these distinctions in cookbooks, popular culture, and socialization behaviors (i.e. the bar b que).
If a male does opt to be a vegetarian, there can be a stigma of not being manly and being a ‘fruit’.
At the same time in a recent study of ethical vegetarians in college, Ben Merriman found that family and friends were actually neutral or favorable to men’s transition to vegetarianism. Women, on the other hand, were found to face hostility primarily from male family and friends. Merriman concluded that this is because the men were seen as capable of governing their bodies, while the women were not.
Denial over control and exploitation of bodies is certainly not limited to human females. Animals we culturally define as food have been shown to be sentient beings. Jonathan Balcombe, a senior research scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has looked at animal’s experience of joy. He determined that animals have behaviors that are carried out for pure enjoyment, such as oral sex being documented amongst goats, hyenas, various primates, bats, and sheep. In “Let Them Eat Dog: A Modest Proposal for tossing Fido in the Oven” Jonathan Safran Foer makes the argument that while dogs and pigs are quite equivalent in their emotions and intelligence, we do not eat dogs even though it would simultaneously solve our problems of over population of dogs and hunger. Even those animals we define as food we need to objectify and remove from their corporeal bodies. We utilize absent referents, renaming the flesh foods as a way of hiding their origins; we eat pork, bacon, and sausage instead of pigs.
This becomes an explicitly feminist issue when examining the source of our flesh foods. The ‘means of production’ in modern factory farming is the female animal body. Impregnation is no longer something occurring between two animals but now involves a ‘rape rack,’ or a metal pipe used to deposit sperm. Hens are caged in confined spaces, have their beaks cut to prevent killing those they are caged with when trying to move, and are made to lay egg after egg until they can no longer reproduce and are then slaughtered. Sows are forcibly impregnated and kept in small spaces, making nursing of their young difficult. Female cows are kept pregnant for their milk until they are ‘dried up’ and then slaughtered. Their calves are taken away early, to which the mother cows have displayed emotional grief. Male babies in all of the above are often considered byproducts. Male calves are often placed in confined spaces and fed low iron diets so that they become desirable veal, while male chicks are simply thrown away.
As human women we are cougars, chicken heads, chicks, foxy, bird (brains), pigeons, bunnies, (ghetto) rats, pigs, cows, pussies, beavers, old bats, and of course bitches. These comparative labels position women hierarchically below men, justifying our exploitation. To say you feel like meat is not only to say you feel like an object, but one reduced to flesh.
In the book Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, A. Breeze Harper examines the intersection of race, gender, and speciesism. There are also animal comparisons along racial categories, such as cockroaches and coons, which are used to legitimate colonialism. Controversial parallels have been discussed with slavery and the holocaust. While the PETA actions evoking this comparison have been widely criticized, one of the contributors to ‘Sistah Vegan’ writes “I thought of my ancestry as a Black woman: the rapes, unwanted pregnancies, captivity, stolen babies, grieving mothers, horrific transports, and the physical, mental, and spiritual pain of chattel slavery”.
The mainstream animal rights movement has used the woman = meat comparison as a manner in which to ‘sell’ veganism. Skinny Bitch in the Kitch is the first in a series of weight-loss cookbooks that turn veganism into a faddish diet using fat phobia and shaming. As one article points out, the language in the book includes quips such as “you need to exercise, you lazy shit,” “coffee is for pussies” and “don’t be a fat pig anymore.” A recovering anorexic’s response: “When you have an eating disorder…that’s the voice you hear in your head all the time.” While these books are relatively new, this connection has been long established, with a 2001 study in the Journal of Adolescent health showing that the most common reasons teenagers gave for practicing vegetarianism was to loose or not gain weight.
PETA, the face of vegetarianism to the mainstream, has used nearly every oppression as marketing technique for its agenda. PETA arguably trades off consuming one ‘meat’ for another. Sizism, classism, racism, sexism (pregnant women in cages, bruised and cut women, nude celebrities) and trans phobia have all been turned into marketing ploys. While PETA plays up its image as ‘radical’ they are in fact playing off of the prevalent cultural hierarchies. As one blogger expressed, PETA ads are ‘roughly 60% boobies, 30% insults, and 10% messaging of unidentifiable purpose’.
While it is easy to hate PETA, it is one part of a larger diet culture that conflates healthy with skinny, teaches women to hate our bodies and cut ourselves into pieces for dissection and critique. We are taught to concern ourselves with the way we want to look instead of what we want to be able to do, how our bodies can work for us, and how we want to feel.
(image from Vegan JoJo’s flickr)
For more information there are numerous recipe databases, zines, and guides to get started. And here is a zine I threw together as a holiday guide for new vegans.