“The history of our species is, by and large, a history of male domination. The subordination of women, and their reduction to their reproductive function, has been such a constant that it can appear somehow normal and right, while the upending of old roles seems to cause a disorienting chaos.”
— The Means of Reproduction, Michelle Goldberg
The success of animal agriculture and industry depends on the control and wholesale abuse of the female reproductive system. Without the ability to breed on demand, the meat, vivisection, fur, dairy, and egg industries could not exist to any significant degree. These industries are a product of patriarchy, and feminism which seeks to achieve reproductive and bodily autonomy can not continue to ignore the billions of female bodies that are raped, mutilated, tortured, and murdered every year.
In “The Means of Reproduction”, Michelle Goldberg outlines how controlling human women’s reproductive ability has been a major international policy question, and how whoever controls reproduction ultimately controls the world. The ability to bring life on at will means the ability to control population sizes, future armies, labor forces, and the economics of entire nation-states. This power has been stripped from women under patriarchy by force. Men have, likewise, done the same to nonhuman females, using their reproductive ability for their own global power and control.
Feminists have long recognized the role of force, rape, and sexualization in the subjugation of women. This understanding is considered foundational. Janice Raymond writes in “Women as Wombs”, that “In the spermatic economy of sex and breeding, woman exists for sex. She also exists to become pregnant and reproduce… There is but a short distance from fucking to breeding in the patriarchal picture.”
She argues that the female body is at the heart of this, and that reclaiming female bodily autonomy is necessary for women’s liberation:
“Women as a class have a stake in reclaiming the female body, not as female nature, but by refusing to yield control of it to men…”
Women are objectified to justify the abuse of their bodies and the autonomy that is stolen from us. Likewise, non-human animals are objectified to justify their oppression. Although humans have evolved to have a particular intelligence, intelligence is hardly relevant in any serious moral framework; otherwise, we would be able to justify the killing of human three-year-olds, who are about as smart as a pig. Rather, the killing of a child (despite their relative lack of intelligence), is often viewed as a far worse offense. Similarly, the abuse of mentally disabled patients is viewed as particularly heinous precisely because these individuals lack the power to meaningfully resist certain forms of abuse. Objectification, therefore, is necessary to excuse the violence and abuse that both women and non-human animals experience, by considering them less-than.
In her groundbreaking classic, “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, feminist theologian Carl J. Adams documents in infuriating detail the ways in which women and animals are objectified for the consumption of men — whether physical or metaphorical:
“I propose a cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption, which links butchering and sexual violence in our culture. Objectification permits an oppressor to view another being as an object. The oppressor then violates this being by object-like treatment: e.g., the rape of women that denies women freedom to say no, or the butchering of animals that converts animals from living breathing beings into dead objects. This process allows fragmentation, or brutal dismemberment, and finally consumption.”
She points out that when women describe their experiences of male violence, we often resort to descriptions of how non-human animals are treated. In her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Andrea Dworkin does exactly this when pointing out the hypocrisy of the Left in their acceptance of pornography: “Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat,” she says.
Non-human animals are also treated like a “piece of meat”, only to be used and consumed by men, despite the fact that they are sentient individuals with the ability to feel pain and suffer much like humans. This is true not only for animals raised for food, who will become literally “pieces of meat”, but also for female animals across any animal industry, where artificial insemination via sexual assault, forced pregnancy, and the stealing of the child are simply part of the business plan.
Having worked as a vivisector, I have first-hand experience of how female bodies are regarded. In “Invisible Women: Data Vias in a World Designed for Men”, Caroline Criado Perez discusses how nearly all “gender-neutral” medical experiments are conducted on either entirely or primarily male bodies. This is the result of another form of sexism: the assumption of the male default, and that female bodies will necessarily behave the same as male ones. If they don’t, it is, of course, the woman’s fault. This is true both in human research, and non-human studies. Females are deemed too “complicated” to study due to their hormonal cycles, never mind the fact that those very cycles have real health implications.
The result of this medical sexism is that female animals in labs are nothing more than baby-making machines, or mates used to stimulate male aggression. In the lab I worked in, female rats were forced to mate with a male (not of their choosing) and were placed into 1-foot long “shoeboxes” with the male where she had no way to escape or hide from his often violent advances. If she failed to become pregnant in the appropriate time frame she was considered useless, and so she was killed (or “euthanized”, as we euphemistically called it).
After the female gives birth, her babies were taken from her as part of a “maternal separation protocol”. The goal of this protocol was to simulate early childhood trauma to study the effects that childhood neglect may have on later aggression.
The impact of this brutal study on the mothers, though, was largely ignored. I conducted the first study of the impact of this maternal separation protocol on the females — and the results were horrifying. Females who had their babies taken from them demonstrated significantly higher levels of anxiety, stress, depression, and tendency towards addiction. Having learned this, I set out to find a way to improve the quality of life of the female rats by offering them “comfort foods” such as chocolate shakes and cheesy snacks. Eventually, though, the reality of their situation hit me, and I realized no amount of sweet treats could really alleviate their pain. I quit my position in the lab without ever publishing my results. I still have nightmares of the mothers screaming for their babies, and of watching them die when they were no longer useful to the study.
What female lab rats go through is similar to female animals in nearly any animal industry — meat and dairy included. Dairy cows, for example, and forcibly impregnated on a device known in the industry as the “rape rack.” Farmers stick one arm up her vagina to inseminate her, and use their other arm through her rectum to guide the process. When she gives birth, her baby is taken from her so that her milk can be given to humans. Dairy cows, who have a similar gestational period as humans, go through this process multiple times in their lives before they are “spend” from exhaustion and become a “piece of meat” themselves.
The consumption of cow’s (or goat’s, or any other non-human’s) milk is the consumption of sexual violence. Just as the purchase of pornography pays for the rape of women and girls, the purchase of milk pays for the rape of non-human females, and supports a patriarchal system where female bodies are viewed as a commodity ripe for exploitation.
Even for those who willfully choose to exclude non-human animals from their moral consideration, there should be a clear understanding that what happens to non-human females can, and will, happen to human women and girls. In the human milk industry, racialized women from developing nations are paid mere cents for their breast milk, which is resold to women in countries like the United States for eight times the price, according to a 2017 article by feminist activist Julie Bindel in Truth Dig. The children of these women are malnourished, and the women suffer painful complications similar to those of dairy cows:
“What the trade in breast milk tells us is that capitalism has come full circle in a way it has never done before, not even with the prostitution market. The base-line purpose of commerce is to feed our children, but the price of this trade demands that children not be fed in the first place.”
This isn’t the only example of animal agriculture circling back to harm human women. Raymond details how the animal agriculture industry paved the way for IVF and surrogacy, both which are considered by feminists to be forms of sexualized violence against women:
“Jacques Testart, technodaddy of France’s first IVF baby, Amandine; director of research at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris; and now avatar of medical ethics for renouncing his own human IVF research, began his career as an animal biologist. He started as an expert in the superfecundation of cattle and the transfer of genetically selected embryos into surrogate mother cows. After leaving the farm, he came to the big city of Paris and began applying his animal research to women.
Likewise, Alan Trounson of Australian IVF repute started his work as a sheep embryologist. He then applied this knowledge to human IVF treatment. In a remarkable turnaround, Trounson took what he had learned on women with the Monash IVF team and now uses a similar technology to breed goats.”
The sexual violence that both women and non-human animals experience is not only sexual in nature, but packaged in gendered ways. According to Adams, meat is often culturally linked with “virility”, or manliness. This link is in many ways culturally obvious: steak is men’s food, salad is women’s food. Men who shirk their meat-eating duties are considered effeminate and emasculated. The modern term used by right-wing men to refer to liberal men, “soy boy”, demonstrates the perceived connection between forgoing meat and emasculation via feminism, where empathetic men are perceived as “cucks”. The mythical, traditional roles of “hunter” and “gatherer” must be preserved. This is likely why male vegans and vegetarians are disliked more strongly than female vegans and vegetarians — because they are acting in a gender non-conforming manner, and gender non-conformity must be punished to uphold patriarchy.
In “Sexual Politics”, Kate Millet argues that, “Patriarchal societies typically link feelings of cruelty with sexuality”. Indeed, the cruelty of the animal agriculture industry is considered part of the appeal under patriarchy, where violence equals power.
Adams writes that meat-eating has become intimately linked to hierarchies of power and oppression:
“People with power have always eaten meat. The aristocracy of Europe consumed large courses filled with every kind of meat while the laborer consumed the complex carbohydrates. Dietary habits proclaim class distinctions, but they proclaim patriarchal distinctions as well. Women, second-class citizens, are more likely to eat what are considered to be second-class foods in a patriarchal culture: vegetables, fruits, and grains rather than meat. The sexism in meat eating recapitulates the class distinctions with an added twist: a mythology permeates all classes that meat is a masculine food and meat eating a male activity.”
She goes on to argue that this food hierarchy has even been used to enforce racial hierarchies. Meat was considered necessary for “brain-workers”, and, since racialized populations and women did not need to use their brains, they did not need or deserve meat. It’s no surprise, then, men from cultures where meat is less central to the meal are often perceived by white populations as less masculine.
The feminist backlash to these sexual politics of meat has been dichotomous: on the one hand, many women attempt to identify into the male role through the adoption of heavy meat-eating and other meat-related tasks, such as butchery and barbecuing. On the other hand, many feminists have noted the connections between the suffering of non-human animals and their own oppression, and opted to resist both.
Feminist critiques of veganism often rest in the assumption that because meat-eating is male-gendered in our culture, then reclaiming it is a feminist act since it is an act of gender nonconformity. Gender nonconformity is powerful in breaking down the barriers that the patriarchy has placed on women, and often comes at great personal cost. But, by adjusting women’s actions to fit the male norm of violence, the feminist adoption of meat-eating serves only to perpetuate the larger inequity: the commodification of female reproduction, and the denial of bodily and reproductive autonomy. By attempting to identify into the patriarchal attitude towards meat, feminists undermine the ultimate goals of feminism in exchange for a surface-level win.
In fact, while veganism and vegetarianism are largely female-gendered, like most other feminized behaviors, they are undervalued by society precisely for this reason. Care and healing work done by women is always undervalued in patriarchy, whether it is paid or unpaid labor. By devaluing the work of vegan feminists to care for others, women who have chosen to adopt the male perspective find themselves perpetuating the same pattern of devaluing women’s caring role. Violence is male, and healing is female. Violence is glorified with medals and parades, and healing is underpaid work. Destruction is male, while creation is female. Men use their power to destroy life and lives, and women use their power to bring life and create anew even in the face of rampant male violence. Choosing destruction and violence over healing and creation in a patriarchal world where women’s power is both undervalued and so feared that it must be tightly controlled is not a feminist act.
Non-human animal sentience is a moral question that those concerned with the rights of individuals must consider. Entire books can, and have, been written on that topic. The ethics of animal rights, anti-speciesism, and their liberation are not necessarily gendered — all humans have an obligation to do what is right, and all sentient beings deserve moral consideration, regardless of sex.
Yes, it is unfair that women are largely tasked with the burden of care. Yet, the ways in which female bodies are commodified and abused under capitalist patriarchy creates a sisterhood between human and non-human females, and addressing the male control of female bodies is impossible without addressing industries of animal abuse, which are built on the backs (or wombs, as it were) of females. We can not hope to eliminate the objectification of and violence against women and girls while objectification and violence against female bodies is driving our economy, feeding our children, and satisfying our men. Women are, to men, no more than animals — “pieces of meat”. Raising the status of animals, therefore, raises the status of women and racialized peoples who have been animalized through sexist and racist assumptions of intelligence, ability to feel suffer, and proximity to the ideal of the Godly white man.
Critiques of veganism often rely on the prioritization of another concept over that of bodily autonomy, which is central to feminism. For example, environmental critiques of veganism, such as those posed by ex-vegan feminist Lierre Keith in “The Vegetarian Myth”, are rooted in a nostalgia for a by-gone era of eco-purity, rather than any sort of relevant ethical framework. When describing why she wrote the book, she states:
“I want a full accounting, an accounting that goes way beyond what’s dead on your plate. I’m asking about everything that died in the process, everything that was killed to get that food onto your plate. That’s the more radical question, and it’s the only question that will produce the truth. How many rivers were dammed and drained, how many prairies plowed and forests pulled down, how much topsoil turned to dust and blown into ghosts? I want to know about all the species — not just the individuals, but the entire species — the chinook, the bison, the grasshopper sparrows, the grey wolves. And I want more than just the number of dead and gone. I want them back.”
There is nothing inherently ethical in preserving “the environment”. The environment is a source of mass suffering for trillions of individuals. If suffering is the baseline moral consideration, saving “the environment” only becomes a means to an end — to reduce further suffering by preventing the suffering that would result from environmental collapse. Species, too, do not have any inherent moral value, and their existence or not is only relevant related to the suffering caused by their loss (both to the individuals of that species and those impacted by their disappearance).
Keith continues, “The reality is that agriculture has created a net loss for human rights and culture: slavery, imperialism, militarism, class divisions, chronic hunger, and disease.”
This may all be true. In fact, many anthropologists agree that it is. It’s interesting, though, that Keith somehow forgets “sexism” in her list of human rights violations. For an active feminist, this ommission is hardly an accident. While human agriculture may have exacerbated the problem, there is evidence that male domination predates not only agriculture, but our species as a whole. Attempting to paint patriarchy as a result of modern "advances" is anthropocentric, and ignores the oppression that our evolutionary grandmothers faced in their own species. Keith says this is “useless” to discuss. She spends three pages explaining that we must end violent masculinity, but these pages sit within 300 more that go to great lengths to excuse it. Ultimately, she decides that it “doesn’t matter”. By shifting her focus from a feminist ethical framework to one based on the glorification of personal hedonism, Keith provides a justification for her own behavior. She does this by relying on another common critique of veganism: health.
Keith admits that she became sick while she was vegan, and this was what actually led to her ex-vegan transformation. All the talk of agriculture, saving the world, environmental degradation, etc, is only to hide from her own health failings. She insists that anyone who is vegan long-term will become sick and “damaged”. Given the many life-long vegans I know who are perfectly fine, and my own seven meatless years, Keith’s exaggerated claims are easily disproven.
Yet, once again, discussions of “health” as they relate to veganism are largely ignorant of, or intentionally omit, the health effects that female individuals face when they lack bodily autonomy (including death). Taking a B12 supplement every so often is considered an unfathomable trade to end rape, the stealing of babies, torture, and murder of female individuals of any species, even human. Feminists know the physical and mental health effects that male violence has on women (and other men, and animals, and the planet) — so attempting to solve “health” issues while maintaining patriarchal control over the means of reproduction is intellectually dishonest for any feminist, and male control of females is necessary for meat-eating to exist at scale. Even if you truly only care about humans, as we’ve seen, what happens to female non-humans comes back around eventually.
Keith seems happy to address sexism when it fits her narrative, for example by pointing out the sexism and pornified ads that PETA uses to attract attention. This is a real issue in the movement, and is rooted in the sexual politics of meat that Adams lays out. Attacking PETA as a surrogate for the animal rights movement as a whole is a strawman argument, but Keith’s logical fallacies don’t end there. She blames the suicide of a friend, who was a victim of male violence, on the fact that her friend was vegan:
“My friendship circle lived through a spectacular suicide, and yes, she was an abuse survivor, but weren’t we all? She was also a vegan. Her mood disintegrated from depression and fits of anger to paranoid rages until she killed herself.”
This is victim-blaming at its finest. The problem wasn’t the male violence, it was her diet.
Let us be clear: abuse victims don’t kill themselves because they are vegan. Having lost my own mother to suicide related to male violence in her (very un-vegan) life, I can guarantee you that meat-eating will not save women.
This appallingly anti-feminist messaging coming from a proclaimed feminist activist may appear shocking, but when we remember that anti-vegan feminists are aligning themselves with the male perspective, it’s no surprise after all. Justifying violence against women becomes second nature when you spend all day trying to justify violence against animals. Women are no more than animals, “pieces of meat”. Just like men have a divine and natural right to control women, humans have a divine and natural right to control other species. This spiritual-turned-violent thread is common across criticisms of both women’s rights and animal rights.
Veganism will not, by itself, end patriarchy and save the planet from the brink of destruction. There are really big issues to solve, and I agree with Keith that nothing less than a total reconstruction of our food systems can even begin to address them. But what veganism does do, however, is to bring about a recognition of the absent referent, of the violence inherent in our systems, and of the role to which female bodies are relegated under patriarchy. No one, human or not, should be subject to the loss of their bodily autonomy and freedom. Feminists should understand this more than most, and feminist anti-vegan efforts under the guise of “nature”, or “personal choice” fail in all the same ways liberal justifications of violence against women fail.
The vegan-feminist connection is not merely a product of modern sentimentality, as some accuse, or the rise of factory farming which has exacerbated all of these problems. Feminists have long been aware of this parallel, and women like Asenath Nicholson (1792–1855), Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), Anna Kingsford (1846–1888), and Margaret Damer Dawson (1873–1920) laid the groundwork for us centuries ago. More recently, civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King and Angela Davis have made the same connection and used their platforms to advocate for a radical restructuring of our food systems and relationships to other species.
Recognizing the suffering of non-human animals does not diminish our fight for women’s rights. Rather, as long as women are dehumanized, animalized, and objectified, the role of other animals in the world is deeply relevant to that of human women and girls. This is the vegan-feminist connection.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, M. K. Fain