Let’s Talk About The Intersectionality Of Veganism And Feminism

When a feminist woman questioned me about the intersectionality of feminism and veganism, the feeling of momentary discouragement towards feminist causes was disconcerting. Why do feminists still have so much trouble seeing the similarity between oppression of animals and human females?

Surprisingly few people, including feminists, are aware of the fact that a cow needs to be pregnant and give birth in order to produce milk (as must any mammal female). Cows are routinely forcefully impregnated (using a so-called “rape rack”), an act that is in all sense equal to sexual violence, only to have their newborn children torn away from them to be sold as veal, for us to steal and sell the milk intended for them. These animals’ reproductive systems are systemically exploited for human gain and pleasure, keeping female animals enslaved for life.

The feminist-vegan argument seems so clear and logical – how can the systemic abuse of a living being as sentient as a human [1] be seen as the norm? Why can’t the neo-feminist movement, or better yet, the women who give strength and life to this movement, realise that in a male-dominated system, women and animals are equally oppressed, and that therefore to yield to meat and dairy consumption without even raising questions is to give in to the culture of oppression?

Well-known theoretical and activist feminists are recognised for fighting the ruling system through their personal actions and in their everyday life, either by denying marriage, heterosexuality, monogamy or/and motherhood. Audre Lorde, Judith Butler and Simone De Beauvoir are good examples of that. Why are they, and women like them, yet to break free from the sexual politics of meat and dairy?

When I think of the resistance of white feminists in realising the different needs and agendas of black feminism, exposing the lack of an intersectional discourse to address all the realities of a variety of women, I believe it takes a bit of patience to analyse and understand the weaknesses of any social movement. Then we must talk about these weaknesses more frequently – in an understandable way.

First, it is important to make it clear that the addressing of this fragility in the feminist movement [and any movement] must be understood as constructive criticism. Secondly, we must not put all responsibility on the shoulders of current feminists through a lack of logic in the fragmented feminist discourse – eating feminised protein and, at the same time, demanding the release of the human female [2]. The intersectionality of veganism and feminism is not wide open. On the contrary, it is covered by many layers of distorted values and imposed by a dominant culture (not very different from sexism and gender inequality).

The feminist-vegan discourse has existed since the 19th century – and yet today it struggles to leave its niche and popularise among the feminist movement, be it white or black. Why is that?

I do not believe in a cause hierarchy (“first let’s end racism, then think of speciesism”, for example), but rather, I spot a lack of more integrated and careful analysis, and few vegan feminists talking about this matter.

Historical Distortion

A possible response to the stagnation of the feminist-vegan movement may be found in the field of historical distortion of the feminist-vegan writings. If we consider that much of the current feminist discourse is centered in feminist texts from the second half of the 20th century and almost none of them deal with the relationship between male dominance and carnivorism, it becomes easier to understand the lack of a closer look (and continuity) to the feminist-vegan discourse that started in the 19th century [3].

There are few contemporary feminists who are dedicated to understanding the feminist writings of the 18th and 19th centuries, when feminist-vegan activism began spreading. Even if we consider that until the first half of the 20th century it was still possible to see a large number of feminist vegan discussion, it is not hard to notice that the vegan discourse tends to be, rather than analysed, ignored or refuted at best.

Therefore, the historical distortion prevails and the feminist-vegan activity remains fragile. Carol J. Adams drew attention to this in The Sexual Politics of Meat, where she highlights the lack of attention on the part of historians toward veganism as a way to fight male oppression by many important feminist authors. She reports major publications – such as The History Of Woman Suffrage – omitting the misunderstandings between vegetarian and omnivorous suffragists in the US.

Adams also draws attention to all the literary criticism of the novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, daughter of feminist, educator and writer Mary Wollstonecraft. It is noteworthy to critics that Frankenstein carries a good dose of feminism, especially because Shelley uses ‘the creature’ to express her revolt against being excluded from the conversations between her husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. But on the other hand, they ignore the vegetarian reality of the author and how she expressed it in a complex way through the eating habits of her creature, making Frankenstein a novel that, despite promoting the feminist-vegetarian word, is recognised only by promoting feminism. As the author asks in The Sexual Politics of Meat:

“For a work that received an unusual amount of critical attention in the last thirty years, and almost all its aspects were examined carefully, it is remarkable that the vegetarianism of ‘the creature’ has been left out of the comment sphere.”

Another example is how the vegetarianism of important feminists seems to stand conveniently in the dark. The poetic anthology We Are All Lesbians has one of the most emblematic poems written by American feminist and suffragist Frances Willard (1839-1898). Eat Rice, Have Faith In Woman is a poem which, like Mary Shelley’s work, promotes feminist-vegan thinking – but its content is often fragmented and veganism ignored.

“Eat rice have faith in women
what I don’t know now
I can still learn
slowly slowly
if I learn I can teach others
if others learn first
I must believe
they will come back and teach me”

-Frances Willard

These three examples are a very simplistic summary of the distortion of feminist-vegan thought, clarifying how the feminist-vegan movement has been set aside, undermining its power and weakening its actions.

The Naturalisation and the Difficulty of Breaking with the Codes of Meat

In addition to the historical distortion of feminism-vegan discourse, we still face the difficulty of breaking free from the imposed cultural patterns and naturalised processes that turn animals into pieces of meat.

It seems that our herbivorous descent (whether divine or evolutionist) does not matter. Nor the cancer epidemic, environmental devastation or the imbalance in the distribution of food between rich and poor classes, much less the animal suffering embedded in our habit of eating meat. All of those are treated like “collateral damage” that can’t be avoided.

We’ve turned ourselves into a civilisation that is psychologically dependent on food (as proven by the obesity epidemic [4]), unable to question where our food came from and how it was made. No wonder that feminism is far more accepted than the feminist-vegan movement. In a sense, feminism puts women in a comfort zone, while the feminist-vegan word forces them out of another one.

In her work Bodies That Matter,  feminist theorist and professor Judith Butler explains how regulatory practices are responsible for producing the bodies that govern and you can quickly understand how this applies beyond human beings:

“All regulatory force manifests itself as a kind of productive power, the power to produce – demarcate, build, differentiate – the bodies it controls.”

Butler’s deconstructionist theory on materialisation of speech also questions what is “natural” and the concept of “nature” and recalls that “feminist scholars have argued that the very concept of nature needs to be rethought” and “the rethinking of nature as a set of dynamic interrelationships is suitable both for feminist goals as to ecological goals […].”

With a closer reading of anthropological and historical studies of diet, habits at the table and nutrition, we could also understand how we do not feed only to obtain nutrients and that “food” is a field of study as complex as “sex.”

Why, for example, in West we love dogs, but in China and Korea dogs is a source of animal protein equally to cows and pigs? When put this way, it becomes clear how food is a cultural construction, but naturalised in the same way of femininity and masculinity [read clarification 3].

“There is no nature at all, only nature effects: denaturalisation or naturalisation”

-Jacques Derrida

Lack of Attention on “Systems of Inequalities”

It is already given throughout an extensive feminist theory and criticism that women and animals are part of the same systems of inequalities. The naturalisation of women as inferior to men does not differ from naturalisation of animals as inferior to humans. As the woman is an object to the service of man and the capitalist system, the animal is an object in the service of the human and capitalist system.

As stated by Donna Haraway in her writings Gender for a Marxist dictionary: the sexual politics of a word, there is a socio-political story behind the Western colonialist discourse of binary categories sex/gender and nature/culture that was ignored and needs to be examined if we want to understand the naturalised domination systems – whether it be with women, non-white and non-Western people, animals or the environment:

“This speech [Western colonialist] structures the world as an object of knowledge, in terms of ownership, through culture, of the resources of nature. A varied recent literature, liberatory and oppositional, has criticised this epistemological dimension and linguistics, ethnocentric domination of those who inhabit “natural” categories or live in mediating borders of binaries (women, people of colour, animals, the nonhuman environment). ”

In her Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway also shows the fragility of the barriers that divide the human and the animal when she talks about the work of primatologists: “researchers working on ‘borders’, where the differences between animals and humans are defined – differences that are more confusing than people think. If the monkeys are not fundamentally different from people, then our feeling of superiority over the animals can be based on a sand castle.”

For American feminist Andrée Collar, “under patriarchy as a social order, nature, animals and women are objectified, owned and are subject to male control over their reproductive systems.”

Animals, black people, women, indigenous people, foreigners, homosexuals and transgender people are on the margins of the regulatory standards and, therefore, are part of the same systems of inequalities. As Butler notes in the form of questioning in her theory of “sex”, these bodies are not worth protecting, saving, and mourning. And even within the systems of inequalities, some bodies are worth more than others.

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

– Sojourner Truth

The Importance of Intersectionality for a Coherent Feminist Speech

Perhaps a deeper analysis of the systems of inequalities and understanding of the concept of intersectionality can direct us to a path able to defragment this discourse and allow us a more holistic approach on part of all the social movements fighting against diverse forms of oppression.

Therefore, it is important to look at the claims of black feminist movement and “third world” feminism, which questions inequality based solely on sex/gender, and recognizes that power operates through multiple structures of domination.

In her text Gender: The Story Of A Concept,  renowned Brazilian anthropologist Adriana Piscitelli brings us the first criticism of the system of oppression centered on sex/gender, raised by feminists whose agendas could not be represented the white feminism:

“They demanded that gender should be thought of as part of different systems, according to which the distinctions between femininity and masculinity are intertwined with racial, nationality, sexuality, social class, and age distinctions.”

It is not accurate to say that there was a single person responsible for creating intersectionality in the feminist movement, but Kimberlé Crenshaw can be singled out as one of the first feminists to talk about it and deal with the need of the intersection in the civil rights and political field nearly three decades ago. Today, Kimberlé continues militating [5], in theory and in practice, and believes that the intersectionality still needs a lot of dedication to be able to bring about change in society.

Piscitelli’s studies enable us to understand how intersectionality has become useful to underline the submission position in almost an equal manner of black women and animals. Women and animals appear equivalent in virtually all texts on feminism and intersectional feminism.

“They [black women] were recorded simultaneously in sexual and racial terms, close to female animals, sexualised and without rights, excluded from the marriage system. In this system, only white women were recognised as women in the sense of potential wives, vehicles to drive the family name.”

Intersectional feminism needs to understand different systems of oppression. As Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood argues [6], nature needs to be incorporated as an additional category of feminist theoretical analysis that deals with race, nation, gender and class. Therefore, we need to understand the intersectional feminist movement as responsible for dealing with race, nation, gender, class and nature.

To go beyond the individualist feminism (or would be bourgeois feminism?), where guidelines such as the right to have or not have body hair gains more attention than political agendas really able to promote positive changes in women’s lives, it is essential to recognise the role of intersectionality in feminist activism.

Ecofeminism, New Perspectives and Challenges for Vegan Feminism

On the one hand, the feminist-vegan word has been spayed, on the other hand it can gain strength through ecofeminism. The latter, perhaps because it does not go directly against an installed food culture and a highly emotional one, has been more successful in being heard when raising criticism and proposing solutions to the various ways of patriarchal, gendered oppression of nature and the environment since the 70s.

The most widespread concept of ecofeminism is the “the belief that there are important connections between how women, people of colour and subclasses are treated, on the one hand, and how the nonhuman natural environment is, on the other” [7].

Rachel Carson, a biologist and one of the forerunners of ecofeminism, argued against the synthetic pesticide DDT in 1962, convincing the then-President of the United States John Kennedy to investigate the risks of pesticides. The first victory of ecofeminism came ten years later, in 1972, when DDT was banned in the US.

Contemporary ecofeminists such as Kathy Gibson and Julie Graham make use of Butler’s theories to underline a new feminist economic ethic and continue proving that, as stated by Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse in the third edition of the publication Gender: In World Perspective, “gender is inexorably part of environmental change.”

This proves not only that it takes patience, but also, above all, we need more women in the fields of medicine, science and biology to discuss (and fight) male dominance that delivers precarious and gendered knowledge and solutions more effectively.

We must also understand this activism with caution and not to accuse it of being “emotional” or elitist. When Carson launched the book responsible for addressing the harmful effects of DDT, she was fallaciously accused of “writing in emotional tone rather than adhering to scientific methods.”

Today, vegan feminism activities are often not only judged as “emotional” but also as exclusionary by those who judge veganism as an elitist white movement. No doubt we need to be careful when approaching the agendas of vegan feminism and ecofeminism in relation to those of black and indigenous people, and also understand why veganism has been so closely related only to white people [read explanations 1]. However, when we look carefully to this matter, we realise that veganism makes a lot of sense for ‘socially disadvantaged’ people too.

In fact, if we consider that the impact of an unbalanced environment (dominated by white male figure) reaches the poorer classes first, represented mainly by black people, condemning ecofeminism and vegan feminism as “elitism” represents a total lack of sense of reality.

We as feminists should question and discuss all systems of inequalities that are responsible for the different forms of oppression. A deeper analysis of the feminist movement is necessary when we want to break paradigms and break with the current structures of power, and we must do so with an open, curious and intersectional mind. In this imbalanced world, which has witnessed threatening disasters, ecofeminism is a necessary challenge to the modern logic of feminism.

In parallel, to promote equal existence and end speciesism and the sexual politics of meat, the modern vegan feminism theory needs to develop in a more coordinated and comprehensive manner, understanding and making good use of the vegan-feminist writings that is a century ahead of ecofeminism. We as vegan feminists * need to understand the basis of our chauvinistic and oppressive food culture to be able to light the way in the mainstream feminist movement and out of the current oppressions.

“An egalitarian sustainable society needs to be not gendered”

Explanatory notes:

1. This text does not approach race and class in the vegan-feminist and ecofeminism movements in a profound way. For this kind of analysis, we suggest the texts of Dr. Lee Harper, founder of Sistah Vegan.
2. This text does not dissect the issues that put animals and women on the same level of oppression. For that kind of analysis, we recommend reading the mentioned texts and the book Rape of the Wild: Man’s violence against animals and the earth (Andrée Collard, 1989) and The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery (Marjorie Spiegel, 1996).
3. This text does not seek to explain why food habits and gender are both the product of a prevailing culture. To understand the social construction of food habits, we indicated anthropological studies on food and nutrition.
4. This text was produced for the free course Introduction On Gender Issues promoted by NUMAS, at the University of São Paulo.

Footnotes:

[1] After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience
[2] Why vegan feminist
[3] Edith Ward – Shafts (1893)
[4] Controlling The Global Obesity Epidemic
[5] Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait
[6] [7] Gender: In World Perspective (Ecofeminism: Debating Woman’s Nature)

 

Photo by Kien Nguyen.

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Marina Colerato

Fashion Stylist

Marina is a fashion stylist from São Paulo, Brazil. She's a believer in cotton, a vegetarian and, of course, addicted to fashion. Her love is shared between her dogs, books and rock n' roll.

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