By Nori Hubert
In her preface to Marjorie Spiegal’s 1988 book The Dreaded Comparisons, Alice Walker wrote: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not created for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”
As a vegan, I’m often accused of valuing animal lives above humans. It is also an excuse I frequently hear to justify someone’s decision to eat animals: “Why should we care about animal rights when there are so many problems in the human world?” And as a vegan who is also an intersectional feminist, artist, educator, and passionate advocate for social justice, I believe this is a legitimate question. While perhaps not apparent at first glance, feminism and ethical veganism are inseparable at their most basic ideological core: all sentient beings have the right to their own lives, their own bodies, and not to be exploited for the privilege of others.
In Western culture, there is a strong tendency (among people of all genders) to associate meat-eating with “manliness,” whereas consumption of plant-based foods is seen as emasculating. Scholar and activist Carol J. Adams explores this phenomena in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory arguing that, “meat’s recognizable message includes association with the male role” and that “the coherence [meat] achieves as a meaningful item of food arises from patriarchal attitudes including the idea that the end justifies the means.” I recall the T-shirts worn by employees at the Rudy’s BBQ in my hometown, a place where cattle ranching was a religious practice and rodeos a way of life, declaring in bold type “Vegetarian: An Old Indian Word for ‘Lousy Hunter.’” As a fourteen year old budding vegetarian, I saw the slogan not only as a (racist) mockery of animal suffering in the food industry, but a reiteration of the objections I heard from family and peers against my dietary choice: Meat-eaters are stronger. You’ll become anemic. Men hate it when girls order salads, good luck ever getting a date. The implication was that wholesome, nourishing plant foods were “girly” and therefore inferior to the bloody steaks that made men, the “traditional” hunters and protectors, “strong.”
Adams argues that this perception of meat as “virile” and vegetables as “passive” contains more than a trace of misogyny: just as animals are objectified and “acted upon” (i.e., killed) for their flesh, women are similarly regarded as sexual objects to be conquered by men. In Adams’ view, meat-eating masculinity contends that “the objectification of other beings is a necessary part of life, and that violence can and should be masked.” In that case, she argues, it is not surprising that survivors of rape, battery and childhood sexual abuse often describe feeling “like a piece of meat,” or that rapists, serial killers, batterers and pedophiles are often simultaneously animal abusers. According to a 1986 study of 64 male sex offenders published in the International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 48% of rapists and 30% of child molesters self-reported abusing animals in childhood or early adolescence. Additionally, the Humane Society of the United States reported in 2007 that 85% of women and 63% of children entering domestic violence shelters discussed incidents of pet abuse in the family. In a hypermasculine world riddled with glorified images of sexual and physical violence, a woman is a child is an animal: an object to use and exploit.
The problematic approach to gender roles lurking beneath the shiny Big Mac wrapper goes hand in hand with patriarchal control: if exploitation is a necessary means to an end, women* are receptacles for men’s enjoyment/procreation and animals exist for the sole purpose of filling human stomachs. Most of us would agree that the former mindset is grossly unjust. Why, in that case, is the latter acceptable?
If any sentient being suffers unnecessarily because of an action, can it really be justified?
Just as intersectional feminism aims to achieve social, political, and economic equality for all people, ethical veganism seeks to cause the least possible amount of harm to all sentient animals, including humans. The intersection between these ideologies tightly intertwine them with rather than against each other, a point eloquently expressed by critical race feminist Dr. Aime “Breeze” Harper of The Sistah Vegan Project: “Many of us, as black vegans and as non-white and white allies, find that our politics cannot be single issue…We cannot ignore the connections between child slavery on cocoa plantations and the enslavement of non-human animals on factory farms. [Likewise], ‘cruelty-free’ cannot simply mean that no non-human animals were harmed during production but that the workers who produce our goods are also well treated and well compensated.” It is important that those of us striving to create a socially just world remember that no form of arbitrary discrimination can, nor should, ever be justified. Our circles of compassion should not be limited only to those with the same skin color, gender expression, sexual orientation, class background, ability, nationality, or number of legs as ourselves.
Homo sapiens are, without a doubt, incredible animals. In our relatively short time on Earth, we have achieved technological and artistic feats unknown to any other species. We have also unspeakably damaged the planet, inflicted incalculable harm upon the species we share it with, and poisoned our own glorious yet fragile societies with hatred and bigotry. At the root of all discrimination – racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, classism, xenophobia, ableism, and speciesism – is the fallacy of superior by birthright. I recognize that some readers may find comparison between animal and human suffering preposterous, even offensive. But is the violence we inflict upon animals exploited for food, clothing, experimentation and entertainment really so different? And if so, why – because these creatures lack the same technological skills as us? Because they communicate in snorts and growls and clucks? Because their flesh and excretions taste good? Perhaps the more important question is what threat would adopting a compassionate lifestyle towards non-human animals pose to human dominance?
The answer: none.
For the record, I don’t value animals above humans. On the contrary, the biggest push for me to adopt a vegan lifestyle was the realization of my own hypocrisy: it made no sense to stand as an ally for marginalized members of my own species while simultaneously supporting the abuse and exploitation of other species. If we truly wish to see a kinder, more peaceful world, we must look past our own conveniences and prejudices in our day to day actions and zoom out to see the larger picture. Calling oneself a feminist while excluding women of color, transgendered, queer, disabled, or immigrant women is just as illogical as cheering for Babe during the movie before sitting down to a dinner of pork chops. Human or animal, all sentient beings feel, all suffer, and all deserve respect and compassion – whether we walk, swim, fly, slither or crawl.
*| Author’s Note: By using the term “women/woman” in this article I am referring to all female-identifying individuals, regardless of biological sex. ** | Header illustration and side illustrations made by Cody Bubenik