Guest post by Sheila Jeffreys
In recent weeks I have participated in two feminist conferences, in Boston and in Ottawa. It was my great pleasure to be able to work and socialize with other radical feminists. It is a joy to be in agreement about the need to abolish such practices of violence against women as prostitution and pornography, because such agreement is so rare in the malestream world. But this great feeling of sisterhood and togetherness was marred by disagreement over an issue that I consider to be of great importance, the eating of animals. On a couple of occasions I felt that my vegetarianism was seen as a problem, a personal issue which was a real bother if it was brought up in public. Since then I have been stewing (in my own juices only) on this issue and consider that it must be raised despite the fact that there are great pressures on vegetarians to keep quiet lest they face the displeasure of their carnivore sisters.
Animal rights should be important to feminists concerned with violence against women. Violence is done to animals, i.e. they are tortured and killed, so that people can eat them. Yet many feminists who work to end violence against women eat animals and see no contradiction with their politics. I was concerned about cruelty to animals before I became a feminist. At age 14 I was a member of an organisation called the Society for the Protection of Animals in North Africa (SPANA) and received the newsletter of an anti-vivisection society. SPANA was mostly concerned with violence against donkeys. I had no pets myself, except a budgerigar when younger, stick insects, newts, goldfish and stag beetles. I wanted a dog but my parents were not keen. But I was outraged about cruelty to animals, and agonised by the photos of rabbit eyes on which cosmetics were tested. I became a vegetarian some time later, about 1970 when I was 22, as a result of moving in a hippy crowd dedicated to eating wholefoods and vegetarianism for ethical and health reasons.
So, when I started reading feminist books and became an activist, in 1971, I was already a vegetarian. But as my feminist politics developed I was surprised to find that feminism and vegetarianism were not considered to be joined at the root. My concerns about cruelty to women are integrated with my concerns about cruelty to animals. I can’t make the separation.
Feminist arguments about the connections between animals and women are many and compelling. Carol Adams and other feminist animal liberationists have made impressive analyses of the ways in which women and animals are treated and the way that the oppression of each is interlinked. Meat eating is associated with masculinity, as Adams makes clear in the Sexual Politics of Meat. In Australia men put the steaks on the barbeque, and deal directly with the blood. Women make salads in the kitchen. Men may make no other intervention in cooking, but dealing with the blood of dead animals in this way is seen as manly and a clear exception. Men in the US and Australian culture also hunt animals and birds. They hunt pigs and go duck hunting, though they can get enough food from the supermarket. The thrill is in the killing and the blood. Men ‘fish’ too, and I find that deeply problematic. Fishermen are responsible for campaigns to prevent the preservation of marine environments. As Andrea Dworkin makes clear, in Pornography: Men Possessing Women, men make connections between hunting animals and hunting women, and this is clear in their pornography. It is clear too in the stalking, and sometimes killing of women by men.
Adams also points out the very direct connections between violence against women and violence against animals. Links are now clearly recognised by animal welfare societies, police, social workers, and feminist theorists, between the way in which boys torture animals and their later violence to girls and women. Men who are violent to women also torture the animals the women love in order to punish or control. Some men train up dogs that menace the women in the household and can be turned against them. Dogs trained to be aggressive bolster the masculinity of their male owners, particularly in the practice of dogfighting. Fascinating new research seeks to explain the increased rates of male violence against women and children in the communities where industrial slaughterhouses are placed in the US in terms of the brutalisation of the male workforce (Amy J. Fitzgerald, Linda Kalof and Thomas Dietz (2009). Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime rates. Organization Environment 2009 22: 158)
But women and animals are connected in other ways too. Women are animals. We should understand our connections, as animals with reproductive systems, with the ways in which the reproductive systems of female non-human animals are farmed, as in the factory farming of sows. Reproductive technology techniques to which women are subjected were developed on female non-human animals in captive breeding programmes. The animals in the captive breeding programmes may be tortured by being kept in small ‘sow stalls’, for instance, so they may not adequately nurture their young.
For feminist vegetarians, the main reason for not eating meat is likely to be the recognition that women and animals are connected. Women and animals are connected in men’s philosophy. We are all seen as brute beasts, non-intellectual, part of nature, there for men’s disposal. Men breed both human and non-human animals through the holding of women, as well as female animals, in captivity. In the case of women this takes place through violence, compulsory PIV sex and compulsory reproduction, as well as through forced and child marriages. The determination to eat ‘meat’, and Adams points out that using this term allows carnivores to dissociate what they eat from the live animals that are killed to produce it, requires that animals and women should be separated out. Women should not be killed for eating, but animals of less worth, such as cows and sows, may be. I am unable to make this dissociation. Whilst other animals are treated with such violence I do not expect women to be spared from cruelty. I consider that our fates are linked.
There are plenty of other reasons for ending the eating of animals. There are health reasons aplenty with meat associated with cancer of the colon and a host of ailments. Also the meat industry treats the animals with antibiotics and growth hormones which create health threats to those who consume them. Abattoirs and the process by which ‘meat’ is produced engage in unhygienic practices which threaten human health. The methods of production and killing spread e-coli, for instance.
The eating of meat threatens the environment and the future of human life on the planet because of the contribution of meat production to global warming. Cattle create methane, and their slurry in feedlots pollutes the countryside. Fish farming pollutes the areas around the fish farms, wild salmon are threatened by the accidental releases of farmed ones. The depletion of fish in the oceans through hunting (called fishing to make it seem less objectionable) threatens the destruction of the chains of life therein. In Australia the production of cattle for meat destroys native plants and animals. 300,000 are exported live yearly to Indonesia for halal slaughter in which they are kicked and pulled and punched to the ground so that their throats can be cut, as a documentary from animal rights activists on Australian television showed this year. The production of meat leads to the destruction of native forests, as in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. It uses a great deal of scarce water supplies. Animal production creates harms to social justice by taking over the lands of poor people who generally eat little meat, whilst their lands and resources are dedicated to the production of meat for the rich in the West and for the developing middle classes such as in Indonesia. Meat eating is associated with prosperity and is aspired to in countries undergoing globalisation and westernisation. Though animal liberationists and feminists have made these arguments for decades, it is only recently that these facts have been taken seriously by such august and malestream bodies as the UN Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, which recommended in 2008 that everyone should have meat free Mondays for the sake of the planet.
Considering all of this, it is hard to imagine any good reasons to eat meat, and it is a constant surprise to me that any feminists involved in fighting violence against women and pornography would do so. It is the eating of animals that creates the divisions between feminists, not the ethical problematisation of this practice. There are huge pressures on the many vegetarian feminists to remain silent and not make a fuss. We are trained to this, and mutter amongst ourselves rather than saying anything, because of the considerable anger which can be directed at us. This is an issue, though, that must be raised. Eating is a political issue.
Sheila Jeffreys is an academic and writer, originally from London, who teaches in Australia. She has been a rad fem activist for 38 years.