Feminism and animal rights... a first step

baby chx

Long before I was aware of concepts like oppression and feminism, I learned about animal rights. 

It started as love. I've had a deep love for animals for as long as I can remember, often preferring their company to that of humans. Growing up I could spend hours -- probably days -- sitting in the cornfields talking to mice, playing in the snow with my dog, or visiting the toads and turtles near my grandparents' summer trailer.  

I also, for whatever reason, have never like the taste of meat. Even before I knew what it was.

I found out exactly what it was at age eight, when I witnessed a pig be butchered at my friend's farm. With a chainsaw. I ran away on the verge of an emotional breakdown, but later took the hooves home as a "present" for my mom in an effort to play it cool.

But to me it wasn't cool. I was horrified.

I started down my path of vegetarianism shortly after. Later on, in my late teens, ideas of animal liberation started to wend their way into my vegetarianism. In other words, it wasn't just out of a sense of love for animals, but of a sense of... well, I guess it'd be called justice, although concepts like rights and justice seem awkward when applied to animals. This was still long before I had any other sort of political awareness. I'd never heard words like feminism or anarchism or even liberation. It was more of a feeling. You know, daydreams of cows and pigs running through the meadows, free. Because they deserved to, not because I loved them. 

I was vegetarian for many years, until someone asked me, "If you're concerned about animals, why do you eat dairy and eggs?" and proceeded to explain the horrors faced by dairy cows and chickens. 

Soon after that, I became vegan. It was really difficult because cheese had been a staple of my diet for many years. I imagine my transition to veganism is what people who like the taste of meat go through when they become vegetarian. Being vegetarian for me was easy -- I wasn't really giving up anything that I actually liked the taste of. Going vegan was another story. 

But a very enlightening story.

Going vegan was the first time I really paid attention to what I was putting in my body, the first time I paid attention to where my food came from, what was in it, how it affected me (physically, mentally, emotionally) and, how it affected the world around me (on a much deeper level than simply abstaining from eating animal flesh).

Going vegan was a life-saving self-intervention. Raised on processed foods -- junk, candy, rarely a fresh vegetable -- I continued to eat like that until well into adulthood. I didn't know any better. Being mindful of what I put in my body made me more mindful of how to care for myself. It led me directly to the ideals of DIY health care.  

Going vegan was also one of the most effective ways of learning how to balance my own needs/desires with the world around me -- a quality that evolved into other areas of my life. It led me to discover the ideals of social justice, feminism, and, later, as I continued the process of learning and unlearning, the politics of anarchism. Anarchism as in mutual aid and support, cooperation, freedom from coercion and oppression.

Veganism is also what taught me to consider concepts of love and compassion as I live out my politics.

It was 10 years ago that I decided to go vegan. Several years back, just as I started having issues with the word "feminist," I started struggling with the word "vegan," as it seemed to be increasingly equated to say, replacing real cream cheese with Tofutti cream cheese, rather than a movement focused on animal suffering and exploitation.

Even more problematic in terms of self identity is that for the past year, I've been eating eggs and dairy. My politics of liberation and love for animals are still integral to my identity, but after years of refusing the advice of health practitioners from all across the spectrum (from conventional medical doctors to naturopaths to herbalists...) I decided to see for myself whether chronic health conditions would improve if I started eating things dairy and eggs. I'm deeply conflicted about this, and am trying to sort through all of those thoughts and feelings. 

(If you're curious, I'd say I'm not sure, but am pretty certain that the emotional/mental cost of feeling shitty about my choices is probably outweighing any possible health benefit. I also want to point out that it's been very rare, in my experience, to encounter a health practitioner of any sort [conventional or holistic] who is well-informed on nutrition and health, so please be critical of anything someone is telling you about health and eating and do a lot of research/self-education.) 

I'm running out of steam, but wanted to end with this. In my thinking and exploring of these ideas, I came across this blog, and this framing of veganism I appreciated:  

...[V]eganism itself is not a privilege. That is, living a life that "seeks to exclude the use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose" does not necessitate privilege. The vegan philosophy is to cause as little harm as possible. It's not about abstaining entirely from all harm. Living as a human in a community with other humans causes some harm to some animals. Veganism is not about being pure and clean. It's about refraining from harming animals as much as you can, given your abilities.

Not only does the framing of veganism resonate with me, so does what I sense as a tiredness in the words.

It's tiring to deal with people's defenses when it comes to veganism and animal rights politics. It's tiring responding to accusations that veganism is a "privilege." Tiring to try and break through people's defenses to engage more deeply about food politics, our (individual and collective) relationship to eating, to the level of who has access to healthy food and who doesn't... Tiring explaining that just because veganism has been commodified and come to mean (in the mainstream) expensive vegan junk food that doesn't mean that's what it takes, or what it means, to be vegan. Tiring explaining that vegan food is plant food, is beans, is rice, is in other words not something that requires any more money than not being vegan. Tiring to see how infrequently veganism/animal rights are even considered in progressive and radical organizing/communities.

For now, I'm going to return to those daydreams of pigs and cows running free, and find the energy for step 2.  




by Debbie Rasmussen
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Re: Feminism and animal rights...

Thanks for the post - would like to see more people talking about the intersection of feminism and animal rights (and how hierarchical systems of power oppress us all).

I agree completely about how going vegan can help you get more in touch with your body - at least, it used to be that way, before the advent of so much vegan junk food (no label-reading required, just note the word "vegan"). It definitely did so for me as well.

The misunderstanding of veganism as a "privilege" is frustrating - it's no more a privilege than a vow of celibacy is - it's a voluntary abstention, almost an anti-privilege. The myth that veganism is "too expensive" is equally frustrating - eating only veggies is not expensive. Possibly inconvenient, requiring a more diverse diet, more planning and research, but also healthier than any diet which doesn't consist of diversity & planning (i.e., eating mostly fast-food and microwave dinners may be convenient, but it's not doing your body any favors, whether you're buying high-priced highly-processed vegan meals or highly-processed low-cost factory-farmed meat products).

I agree that most medical professionals don't know much about nutrition, or, indeed, most chronic illnesses (raise your hand if you've heard the word "ideopathic"). Two suggestions: 1 - you might consider that some chronic illnesses have a strong psychological component and considering the "vegan fatigue" you seem to exhibit, you might consider ways of removing/minimizing those stresses from your life (perhaps by going stealth for a while or finding/forming a vegan support community); 2 - I recently learned about "health counselors," which are apparently different from "nutritionists" - if you could find one who is vegan or knows a lot about veganism, that might be worth a try (if you haven't already).

Good luck finding your way to step 2.

Thanks for this

Glad to see some space given to animal suffering in a feminist forum. The lack of awareness about the intersection of animal rights with many other struggles is so frustrating.

How many people claiming veganism is for rich white folks think about the lack of labor rights for (definitely not rich, definitely not majority white) people working in slaughterhouses under the most brutal conditions for the lowest wages? And as you mentioned, veganism is only more expensive if you insist upon heaps of processed vegan junk food. Despite the rise in popularity of expensive gourmet, organic, raw, vegan "foodie" type cuisine among the most privileged of our already privileged western society, in less wealthy groups within human society eating meat is still seen as a symbol of wealth and status.

What about the fact that the abhorrent treatment by white folks of Africans and other black and brown folks has often been justified by considering those abused to be "animals"?

Or how about making connections between violence toward non-human animals and violence toward women in domestic situations? The conflation of meat eating with "manliness"? And the issue of commodifying and abusing female bodies, which is not only a problem for female humans but also for female farm animals, who are kept in the most disgusting conditions so that human animals can consume the byproducts of their reproductive systems.

A lot of people get very upset when asked to consider non-human animals as beings with "rights", deserving of the same respect we extend to (some of) our own kind. But whether human and non-human animals "deserve" equally to be free and happy doesn't even need to be the question. Considering that the underlying attitudes making the brutal treatment of non-human animals in our society acceptable are the very same attitudes and beliefs that make the brutal treatment of "othered" humans acceptable, it's high time we all took a second look at our ability to "other" any living thing as an excuse for denying them freedom, health, contentment, self-actualization, etc.

This is a really interesting

This is a really interesting topic. I have been a vegetarian for about a year and a half. I feel like I'm making baby steps in connecting my politics and my eating/consumption habits. It's difficult because I am the only vegetarian in my family. My practice is almost seen as an insult to the family. (Mostly because of the money spent on food, the effort that goes into preparing food, and the tradition wrapped up in family dinners). Becoming a vegan is something I have considered but cannot fully commit to at this time. My question to readers and the author is can eating dairy and eggs be done consciously without harm to animals?

Also, you stated "Tiring to see how infrequently veganism/animal rights are even considered in progressive and radical organizing/communities." That is really been my experience too! It amazes me.

can eating dairy/eggs be done w/o harm?

Eating dairy and eggs can only consciously be done without harm to the animals if you're supervising the animal treatment, i.e., you live on the producing farm and know that the hens/heiffers are not confined, drugged, mutilated or killed for meat. Otherwise, you're out of luck.

Here's some info on "free range" farming practices: http://www.veganoutreach.org/freerange/

By the way, I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulty "coming out" as veg with the family - my father nearly disowned me when I went vegan (extremely hostile), but you can get through it. The best first step is to find a vegetarian community in your area and get some support - it helps a lot. If there is no such community, then start one!


this is a good article, but i'd prefer an article that actually discusses the intersections of feminism and animal rights, and more broadly the intersections of all anti-hierarchical movements...

I have had these issues on

I have had these issues on my mind for a long time now and am so glad that finally there is beginning to be more discussion about the intersection of feminism and animal rights. The animal welfare movement, specifically animal shelter management, used to be a male dominated industry, but now more and more women are taking positions as directors of animal shelters. Sharon Harmon, the executive director of the Oregon Humane Society was listed as one of the nation's most powerful women last year.
Domestic abuse and pet abuse are almost always linked, abusive partners will harm pets in order to torment and control their victims.
Major animal welfare issues, like dog fighting are rank with misogyny. Female fighting pit bulls are so aggressive that in order to mate them, they are tied down to what is referred to as a "rape stick"
These are just a few examples.
Slavery, colonialism, racism and sexism were long supported by false notions that women and ethnic minorities were less intelligent, or had higher pain and work tolerances. These same notions underlie animal abuse. Just like feminist discourse must include the intersections of racism, ageism, classism, sexism, etc.; I think we must also begin include the issue of animal welfare.


Love animal rights.
Thank you for making such an impact.

Feminism and animal rights

A great resource for those of you who are interested in learning more about the intersections between animal rights and feminism is Carol Adams book "The Sexual Politics of Meat." Even if you are only interested in one of these subjects it is a fascinating read.

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