Outskirts online journal

Angella Duvnjak

Further information

About the author

Angella Duvnjak works as a Research Associate in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University. She is engaged in research and political activism in the areas of reproductive politics, animal rights and veganism, feminist theory, class and social disadvantage and women and drug use. She has been a vegan for 20 years and a feminist way before she had a word for it.

Publication details

Volume 24, May 2011

Joining the Dots:
Some Reflections on Feminist-Vegan Political Practice and Choice

Introduction: A Feminist-Vegan Journey

This paper has its roots in a very personal place for me. With this in mind, I would like to begin with my journey to ‘here’. Shortly after beginning my undergraduate studies in the early 1990s I discovered feminism. It was a revelation to me. It ‘fit’. It provided me with a framework with which to understand and explore much of my own experience up until then. This started me on a personal and intellectual journey that I continue on today. I quickly set about immersing myself in all things feminist. I joined ‘women on campus’, started attending the Network of Women Students in Australia (NOWSA) conferences and enrolled in a range of politics and women’s studies courses in order to explore academic feminist thought.

I was also a vegetarian and had been since I was 12 years old. The inspiration for my twelve year old self had been the very ‘wayward’ Aunty of my best friend at the time who came to visit one weekend and spoke of being arrested protesting at a battery hen farm. I had no idea what a ‘battery farm’ was and, to be frank, what appealed to me most was that she was so different, so unlike the other ‘adults’, so unlike other women in my life at that time. I wanted to be like that. Shortly thereafter I came to befriend a calf at my grandparents’ home in rural New South Wales. My (and many animals’) fate was set: no more meat eating for me!

I was introduced to veganism, however, whilst attending my first ever feminist conference. Lining up for lunch I observed alongside the meals labeled ‘vegetarian’ was a whole selection labeled ‘vegan’. This was before such ‘options’ were commonplace. I was curious and more than a little intrigued by the fact that so many of the women there seemed to bee-line for them. I spoke with one of the women over lunch and read a small booklet she gave me on animal rights. Shortly thereafter I became a vegan.

I soon discovered that it was no coincidence that I stumbled upon veganism at a feminist conference. Indeed, feminists had been thinking and writing about women, animals and the environment for many years. This included the work of feminist-vegetarian theorists such as Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990) and Josephine Donovan’s Animal Rights and Feminist Theory (1990) and eco-feminists such as Collard and Contrucci’s Rape of the Wild (1988), and the work of many others including Vandana Shiva (1988) and Val Plumwood (1993).

Around about this time I wrote a piece in the Adelaide University student paper entitled ‘Why feminists shouldn’t eat meat’. This was promptly met with a ‘women’s right to choose’ response from another (more influential) student feminist and I retreated into safer spaces to voice my feminist-vegan tendencies. I went on to co-found ‘Students for Animal Liberation’ at Adelaide University and whilst many feminists joined and were active in this group, there was little ‘cross-pollination’ between it and the other women’s groups that we were involved in.

So, here I am, many years later. This is the first time I have brought my thinking about feminism and veganism into my academic/research life and the first time I have dared to publically re-visit this topic in a feminist setting. So, why now?

Where are we now?

When human beings exterminate animals, they devastate habitats and ecosystems necessary for their own lives. When they butcher farmed animals by the billions, they ravage rainforests, turn grasslands into deserts, exacerbate global warming, and spew toxic wastes into the environment. When they construct a global system of factory farming that requires prodigious amounts of land, water, energy, and crops, they squander vital resources and aggravate the problem of world hunger. When humans are violent toward animals, they often are violent toward one another…..The vicious circle of violence and destruction can end only if and when the human species learns to form harmonious relations – non-hierarchical and non-exploitative – with other animal species and the natural world. (Best 2006, p.2)

As Best argues, human beings have had, and continue to have, a detrimental impact upon the animal kingdom and the environment upon which all living beings rely. Whilst there has been an increasing mainstream political focus on particular aspects of human impact upon the environment such as climate change, the more radical and far-reaching critique begun by eco-feminists and vegetarian feminists in the 1980s and early 1990s has been lost. This is not only the case within the mainstream ‘green movement’ but indeed, within mainstream feminism itself. One notable exception is the recent resurgence in North America (not seen in Australia) within feminist philosophy focusing particularly on the question of human-animal relations (Gruen 2011; Kheel 2008; Weil 2006).

My concern is that after very positive beginnings where feminists actively pursued the links between violence against the environment, first nation peoples, women, children, animals and patriarchy, we have lost our way. At a time when environmental crisis is everywhere we turn, with women and children in the majority world often bearing the brunt of this, in 2010 I found myself at a national women’s studies conference that appeared not to contain any other papers dealing with our relationship with animals and the environment. This is but one of the many indicators to me that feminist thought, activism and the animal rights/environment movements have been ever so gradually parting ways over the past two decades. I argue in this paper that this ‘parting of ways’ is problematic for a number of reasons, not only for the fact that it stifles real progress in areas central to feminist scholarship and activism, such as domestic and sexual violence, poverty and inequality, gender and caring, but also because it produces and reproduces the ‘silence’ surrounding the actions of the powerful over the powerless in society.

Why or how has this occurred? My contention is two-fold. Firstly, the rhetoric of ‘choice’, so central to feminist arguments, has been co-opted by the dominant liberal-individualist capitalist discourses of the day. Within highly consumerist western settings the mantra of liberal feminism has morphed into a personal apolitical function of our lives. Rather than choice being the outcome of freedom and equality, we find choice to be an expression of power reinforcing the inequality of ‘others’. Here I use ‘others’ to refer to those who have traditionally been the targets of abuse and oppression and have been constructed as objects rather than subjects. This includes, but is not limited to, Indigenous peoples, refugees, gay and lesbian people, animals and, of course, women. A crucial part of such oppression has been the processes of active ‘othering’ in order to justify their treatment as objects.

Secondly, it seems that rigourous consideration of the question of an ethical life is often collapsed into moralism, or good versus evil and this may contribute to a reluctance on behalf of feminists to engage in discussion on topics such as meat eating and animal-human relations.Indeed, this fear of prescriptivism came to inform an active rejection of eco-feminist and vegetarian feminist theory. Kathryn George, for instance, has argued that ‘feminists should not moralise about food practice…moral vegetarianism is inconsistent with feminism and is, in fact, at odds with the central assertions of feminism’ (2000, p. 16). The ‘central assertions’ that George refers to, however, such as the need to pay attention to context in moral decision making, is precisely what I argue a vegan-feminist ethics implores us to do. Yet these responses or resistances do not occur in a vaccum and, as Carol Adams notes reflecting on the twenty year anniversary of The Sexual Politics of Meat, ‘I hugely underestimated the antifeminist world – the world vested in women’s inequality – and the meat eating world, and the way they would intensify their interactions’ (Adams 2010, p. 302).

Admittedly feminists have good reason to be wary of the kind of prescriptive moralism that George cautions us against, especially as it has so often been the case that it is women’s behavior that has been deemed as ‘immoral’. Yet I argue that this is a mis-interpretation of feminist-vegan ethics and political practice. Feminist thinkers initiated theoretical exploration into the political nature of the ‘personal’. Yet often the desire to keep what is interpreted as moralism at bay and out of reach of decisions about our personal lives has meant that important ethical questions remained uninterrogated. Adams also suggests a kind of pre-emptive stance taken toward the feminist-vegan, stating, ‘[t]hey anticipate how we feminist-vegetarians or feminist-vegans will behave. Thinking we are going to lay down the ‘law’ and assume the role of superego...’ (Adams 2010, p. 312). As a result, the ever-increasing toll of abuse and harm towards non-human animals, the environment, women and children and the connection between these are yet to be seriously considered in a consistent manner by the broader feminist movement.

The purpose of this paper is not to ‘prove’ a case nor to suggest what other feminists should or shouldn’t do. As suggested above, a common misconception of the feminist-vegan ethic or philosophy is that its focus is on policing or instructing women or feminists on their proper behavior. Rather, I intend to explore some questions that occur to me as a feminist and a vegan. My hope is in doing so, more opportunities for such reflections will become available and that the development of a feminist-vegan politics will become a powerful tool of analysis and praxis for the future.

I will begin by briefly outlining some of the main feminist-vegan arguments, followed by what I see as some of the major barriers preventing a ‘joining of the dots’ by feminists in this area. I conclude with suggestions for a radical future of choice that incorporates the insights of a feminist-vegan politics informed by the insights of feminist philosophy and an ethic of care.

Of Animals and Women

As we talked of freedom and justice one day for all, we sat down to steaks. I am eating misery, I thought, as I took the first bite. And spit it out (Walker, 1988)

To be a feminist, one has first to become one…Feminists are not aware of different things than other people; they are aware of the same things differently. Feminist consciousness, it might be ventured, turns a 'fact' into a 'contradiction'. (Bartky cited in Adams, 1990, p. 184)

Many feminists are vegetarian or vegan. Women also represent the vast majority of vegetarians and vegans in Australia . There exists a long history of connections between vegetarianism and feminism. Carol Adams (1990) cites the opening of a vegetarian restaurant in 1910 by Canadian suffragettes at their Toronto headquarters alongside other examples of well-known feminist-vegetarian activists over the years. Despite this, feminist-vegetarian voices and activism remains marginal at best to official feminist ‘herstories’. In her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams attempts to ‘reconstruct’ parts of this herstory, citing the many examples of feminist theory stemming from an awareness of the connections between animals and women under patriarchy. She observes that, ‘this oppression of women and animals, though unified….is experienced separately and differently by women and animals. Thus, it is an oppressive structure that, when perceived, is often perceived in fragments and attacked in fragmented ways’ (Adams 1990, p. 169).

Some of the earliest writings to highlight connections between the treatment of animals and that of women came out of the eco-feminist movement. Eco-feminists focused on the task of gradually joining together these ‘fragments’, articulating not only the links between the way animals and the environment are treated under patriarchy but also the shared discourses that underpin such treatment. In their ground-breaking book, Rape of the Wild, Collard and Contrucci (1989) call for a feminist ecological revolution arguing that men’s violence against nature as evidenced in practices such as hunting and animal experimentation parallels, and is informed by, the patriarchal desire to control women. One of the major insights of eco-feminism was to draw attention to the way the basic dualisms of nature versus culture and reason versus emotion, arising from within liberal political philosophy, informs a range of practices whereby the masculine (culture) dominates the feminine (nature). Crucially, eco-feminists highlighted the prevalence of this underlying philosophy (and its effects) within the (then) new environmental movement and indeed, the mainstream animal rights movement (Donovan 1990; Plumwood 1991).

More recently, Joni Seager writes that feminist environmental scholarship and animal rights activism pivots around three main concerns,

elucidating the commonalities in structures of oppressions across gender, race, class, and species; developing feminist-informed theories of the basis for allocating ‘rights’ to animals; and exposing the gendered assumptions and perceptions that underlie human relationships to nonhuman animals (2003, p. 167).

Commonalities in Structures of Oppression

Given that feminism works towards the elimination of gendered inequality why should feminists concern themselves with questions of the ethics of human-animal relations? Of course, the individual feminist may choose to do just this, but should it be considered an essential or necessary part of the feminist project/agenda? I argue that it should. I want to turn now to detailing some of the most compelling reasons for this argument.

Very early on in their analysis of political theory it became obvious to feminists that women were often to be considered alongside much of the other ‘property’ over which white men exercised their control. Furthermore, white men were viewed as having natural governance over all ‘others’, those for whom inferiority was attributed on a range of grounds. In her ground-breaking book, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, Marjorie Spiegal observes the way discourses aligned the nature of those ‘others’ over which white man had control as a way of justifying this control. She states, ‘[i]n the eyes of the white slave-holders, black people were ‘just animals’ who could soon get over separation from a child or other loved person’ (Spiegal in Donovan 2006, p. 315). In other words, it was suggested that there was something inherently  different about black people such that they were suited to the practices inherent in slavery. In some cases ‘scientific’ evidence was thrust forward to support such arguments. As is the case today with ‘evidence’ used to justify the treatment of animals, suggesting either that some animals do not feel pain (such as fish) or that such pain is incomparable to human pain and therefore less worthy of consideration. As Seager observes,

[t]he debates about animals unmistakably echo familiar racist and sexist ideologies about ‘natural affinities’, categories authorized by nature, destinies inscribed by biology, and ‘scientific proofs’ of the limited capacities of the ‘other’ that have rumbled through the centuries to justify slavery, the oppression of women, and ethnically and racially based holocausts and genocides (2003, p. 169).

A feminist-vegan ethic is based upon consideration of the connected processes of ‘othering’ and the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression that result from these processes. Early feminist writing on the topic explored the similar treatment of women and animals and the reduction of women to animals in much of the dominant culture. Dunayer (1995) details how the false hierarchical dichotomy of human versus non-human animal (or specieism) informs patriarchal language aligning women with the implied inferiority of non-human animals, especially domesticated and farmed animals , ‘those bred for service to humans’ (1995, p. 12) . We find examples of this in our everyday language with common derogative terms used against women such as: ‘You fat pig’; ‘What a bitch’; ‘She’s a cow’.

Feminists also drew attention to the way language can function to invisibilise relations of power, making them seem almost common sense, ‘normal’. Dunayer further explains,

[w]ithout speciesism , domesticated animals would not be regarded as mindless; without specieism, they would not be forced into servitude. Exploiting the hen for her eggs, the cow for her milk, and the bitch for her ability to produce litters invites demeaning female-specific metaphors. (1995, p. 15)

Indeed, as eco-feminists pointed out, the earth itself is coded feminine as ‘mother earth’, constructed as passively awaiting the ‘conquering’ of man. As Steve Best (2006) argues, many current legal definitions of what constitutes violence merely act to shore up the interests of those who profit and gain power from such definitions. He asks, for instance, why the destruction of property by animal rights activists is viewed as violence when the maiming, torture and slaughter of animals is called ‘business’ or ‘research’?

Feminists have asked similar questions in relation to violence against women. This includes the battle that feminists have had to get violence against women to be seen as just that, violence. For rape in marriage to be seen as just that, rape, not part of the sexual contract of marriage (i.e the business of marriage). Feminists invite us to consider in whose interests these discursive tools continue to function. In not describing these acts as acts of violence we become blind to their true meaning within the broader social power structures. Terms such as ‘domestic violence’ and the more recent, ‘family violence’, whilst representing a concession to feminist arguments, can function to both normalise the violence at the same time as suggesting it is something other than what it appears to be. This is akin to using terms like the ‘culling’ of animals or ‘humane slaughter’. Perhaps the most significant of these in relation to animals, if only for its power to distort so well what it actually refers to, is our use of the word ‘meat’.

One of the central themes of women’s liberation became the ability for women to have control over their own bodies, for their bodies to no longer be the property of men or the state. The famous feminist catch-cry, ‘not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate’ represented this clearly in relation to abortion rights. Marti Kheel argues, ‘the lack of control that women have over their reproductive capacity in patriarchal society is magnified on factory farms where female cows are kept in a continual state of lactation, and where rape racks are routinely used to impregnate female animals’ (2005, p. 7-8). The adoption of veganism is, therefore, a way for feminists to refuse to participate in the control over another female’s body. Curtin points out that ‘[s]ince the consumption of eggs and milk have in common that they exploit the reproductive capacities of the female, vegetarianism is not a gender neutral issue’ (1991, p. 71).

The Hierarchy of ‘Others’

As is the case within the gendered norms of a patriarchal system, where some women are more highly valued than others for their implied closeness to the ‘ideals’ of femininity, so too, we see a similar hierarchy when it comes to animals. We witness a preference for ‘majestic’ and ‘awe-inspiring’ creatures like the whale or the great ape, animals who evoke much greater sympathy and political action than, say the sow or the laying hen. Indeed, as Davis argues:

Not only men but women and animal protectionists exhibit a culturally conditioned indifference toward, and prejudice against, creatures whose lives appear too slavishly, too boringly, too stupidly female, too “cowlike”. (1995, p. 196).

As a consequence, animals that exhibit the attributes associated with masculinity such as strength, aggressiveness, dominance and speed are more highly valued in a patriarchal society. At the same time gendered anthropomorphised feminine and masculine behaviours are transposed onto the animal itself. The notion that pigs are ‘dirty’ or ‘filthy’, that wolves are ‘cunning and conniving’ or that chickens are actually ‘chicken’ are ‘in reality negative human traits’ (Dunayer 1995, p. 17) that the animal rarely exhibits. Rather, they are used to reinforce both the subjugation of the feminine to the masculine and the non-humananimal to the human.

Heteronormativity and Veganism: ‘Feed the Man Meat’

Relatedly, the connection between animal domination and abuse and male identity has been pointed out by many feminists. Activities such as hunting and fishing, for instance, are routinely coded as masculine whilst men who choose not to eat meat are often considered to be effeminate. Indeed, there exists a considerable gendered history of our relationship with food in general, and meat eating in particular. As Lindenmeyer suggests, ‘[a]ny feminist discussion of food needs to reflect on the gendered patterns of production, preparation and consumption of food’ (2006 p. 470). This includes women’s traditional role in preparing family meals, the idea that men eat bigger and more ‘hearty’ meals than women, and the fact that women are supposed to eat in a ‘dainty’ or restrained manner. Or, as Lindenmeyer puts it, the construction of ‘men as eaters and women as feeders’ (2006, p. 470). Women’s relationship with food is vexed with notions of restriction and bodily control. This may in part explain the reluctance of some feminists to adopt eating practices that appear to align with traditional understandings of femininity such as vegetarianism or veganism. ‘A part of [the sexual politics of meat] is that vegetables represented passivity, and vegetarianism was okay for women and anyone associated with women’ (Adams 2010, p. 303).

The relationship between gender norms and sexuality in relation to the eating of animals is further explored by Marti Kheel (2005). Using Adrienne Rich’s concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ she suggests that the response that many vegans and vegetarians often encounter mirrors the same kind of confusion and bewilderment that lesbian sexuality engenders within the context of dominant heterosexuality.

Individuals who defy the mandatory norm of meat eating encounter similar obstacles to those faced by people who challenge the norm of heterosexuality. Just as a woman is considered incomplete without a man, so, too, vegetarians are viewed as incomplete without the addition of flesh…..People ask vegetarians, “What do you eat? with the same combination of incomprehension and bewilderment as when they ask lesbians, “what do you do?” (Kheel, 2005, p. 13)

Potts and Parry (2010) explore the possible challenges that a ‘vegan sexuality’ might pose to heteronormative masculinity. They examine responses to New Zealand research published in 2009, that found that some women prefer sexual intimacy with a partner who does not consume animal products. Despite this finding being a small part of a much larger study, it was picked up very quickly in the media. Media reports proclaiming a new ‘vegansexuality’ or ‘vegansexuals’ were met with very hostile and sometimes, outright offensive responses mainly by meat-eating men who saw this as an affront to their sexuality. The idea that vegans are somehow ‘missing out’ was a common aspect of the responses. Comments included the fact that such women (‘vegansexuals’) were likely not to be sexy, were uptight or overly angry women or simply needed a ‘good steak’ [read: good fuck]. Finally some commentators decided that they (vegan women) were probably not worth it as they would most likely be a ‘bad lay’ (Potts and Parry 2010, p. 62).

Whilst Potts and Parry do not make this argument, it is clear that there are parallels here with many of the tried and true responses to women who do not engage in heterosexual sex. Such vehement opposition to the findings of one research study demonstrates what is at stake when it comes to women choosing for themselves what they put into their bodies, male privilege. As Potts and Parry conclude, the assumption is that ‘vegans are in some way abstaining from something natural and carnal in rejecting meat’ (2010, p. 59).

The dominant construction of veganism describes it as coming from a place of denial or restriction. Veganism within this discourse is perceived as restriction whereby one is understood to be ‘missing out’ on that which is viewed as ‘normal’, the full experience that eating a diet including animal products is presumed to afford. Given the strong association between food and sexuality in both popular culture, literature and philosophy, it is noteworthy that the messages given here overlap with many of those surrounding lesbianism in our dominant heterosexist culture.

The Problem of Choice: Consumerism

In a culture where consumerism and consumption (literally) are highly valued and reflective of status, power and influence, those who are seen to ‘opt out’ or abstain are viewed as problematic. Food has increasingly become the focus within popular culture with the advent of reality TV shows like Master Chef, Jamie’s Kitchen and others purporting to advocate a move back to home-cooked ‘real’ food whilst invariably being supported by a wide range of product placements and multi-national companies reliant upon just the opposite philosophy (e.g. Coles’ sponsorship of Master Chef). As Heather Brook puts it ‘[a]t every turn we are urged to try, buy, dare, taste. The ‘good’ citizen does not resist temptation but relishes it’ (2010, p. 103).

As suggested in my introductory comments, feminism itself has been reduced in some instances to the exercising of choice per se. ‘Choice’ becomes an empty vessel into which we pour our own individual desires. In the context of a culture based upon patriarchal structures that normalize the use of animals for hu(man)s as a means of reinforcing power and control over the vulnerable, under what circumstances can a feminist be seen to ‘choose’ to eat meat?

The Construction of ‘Meat’

Carol Adams argues that animals become invisibilised within the dominant cultural construction of ‘meat’. Using the concept of ‘absent referent’ she explains it thus:

Animals are made absent through language that renames dead bodies before consumers participate in eating them. The absent referent permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity … Simultaneously, the structure of the absent referent keeps animals absent from our understanding of patriarchal ideology and makes us resistant to having animals made present. (1991, p. 136)

The construction of ‘meat’ and the way animal products are variously labeled obscures both their origins and the power relations between human and non-human animals required for their ‘production’. The individual animal is removed (absent) from the discourse, in its place we find a constructed language (e.g ‘veal’, ‘bacon’, ‘foie gras’) that facilitates the systematic removal of animals from scene of consumption. The ‘choice’ to eat animals and use products made from their flesh and reproductive labour takes place within this context. In much the same way, the construction of women as sexually available to men (or rapable) enabled rape to be viewed as the result of men reacting to their ‘natural’ desires, thereby removing the agency, desires or presence of women and substituting a ‘cause and effect’ like scenario. In removing the individual agency of men and women in the rape scene, the man merely takes ‘sex’ in order to satisfy ‘natural’, ‘normal’ desires. The woman is, in effect, rendered a passive victim to the inevitable. In re-inscribing women’s desires and experiences into the rape scene feminists highlight the inherent use of power and violence. Likewise, when we remove the individual animal from our language and our vision, we see ‘meat’ acquired to satisfy our desire for what is constructed as a ‘natural’ food. As Adams concludes:

As long as animals are culturally constructed as edible, the issue of vegetarianism will be seen as a conflict over autonomy (to determine on one’s own what one will eat versus being told not to eat animals). The question, “Who decided that animals should be food?” remains unaddressed. (Adams 1991, p. 140)

Ethics of Care and Feminist-Vegan Political Practice

Feminist ‘ethic of care’ philosophers have been directing our attention toward the consideration of vulnerability, dependency and caring relations in society and what this means for our understanding of ethics for many years now (Gilligan 1982; Larrabee 1993; Held 2006; Donovan and Adams 2007). Central to the dominant liberal political philosophy that underpins modern western societies is the idea of the citizen and the protection of their rights. The citizen is the basis upon which civil society is founded. Within liberal philosophy citizens are constructed as independent, autonomous and abstracted from one another. As citizens we engage with one another on the basis of social contracts that limit some rights in exchange for an agreed set of values or goods that society deems necessary in order for its efficient functioning. Much has been written about the social contract, especially the extent to which women and other marginalised persons have had the ability to freely participate in their negotiation (Pateman 1988). Prior to enfranchisement, women’s voices, needs and desires were assumed to be adequately reflected by their husbands and fathers in the public realm and through their role as mothers in the private sphere. Feminists have argued that women’s voices and experiences were either mis-represented, narrowly interpreted or indeed, silenced. At the same time, the notion of the citizen as an independent, autonomous individual, has been critiqued by feminists who observed that such an understanding did not adequately represent key aspects of women’s (and some men’s) lives that centered more upon relations of interdependence (Gilligan 1986; Kittay and Feder 2002). Others suggested that an unnecessary dichotomy between autonomy and dependence arose from the liberal conceptualisation of the individual (Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000). In shifting our understanding of the individual toward one that includes relationships of dependence, care and interdependence and also allows for autonomy, ‘ethic of care’ feminists widened the focus beyond that of the rights-bearing citizen. Feminists began to examine the limitations of the dominant ‘rights based’ approach and explore how a consideration of relationships of care might impact upon politics and ethics.

The question of how dependence and vulnerability function in relation to rights and responsibilities in modern day liberal democracies remains. Feminist philosophers such as Virginia Held, Sara Ruddick, Nel Noddings, Eva Kittay amongst others, have asked us to consider the individual as a ‘relational self’ characterised by both autonomy, dependence and inter-dependence. They invite us to consider what this might say about the dominant norms and values of a political philosophy based upon the idea of an autonomous individual who is abstracted from others and for whom social contracts form the basis of their engagement with one another. These feminist philosophers observe that the legacy of privileging this individual in political theory has translated to an inherent distrust and de-valuing of relationships of care. The values and knowledges that arise from practices of care have traditionally been excluded from serious political and philosophical consideration on the grounds that such practices arise out of relationships and stem from an instinctive (read natural/emotional) basis. In other words, they are too ‘feminine’. As a result, we are yet to meaningfully consider how an understanding of practices of care might provide more helpful ways of articulating, amongst other things, an ethical basis for relationships between all interdependent living beings.

Indeed this rejection of ‘care’ or ‘emotion’ is common within the mainstream animal rights movement where the rational, utilitarian, liberal based arguments of its founding fathers Peter Singer and Tom Reagan pre-dominate. Josephine Donovan observes that ‘both rights and utilitarianism dispense with sympathy, empathy, and compassion as relevant ethical and epistemological sources for human treatment of nonhuman animals’ (2006, p. 206). This is not to say that proponents of a rights-based approach to animal ethics do not confess a level of sympathy or emotional response to the suffering of animals, but rather, that the ‘care’ response is viewed as an unreliable and inferior source of knowledge and insight upon which to base their approach.

Feminists have argued that the ‘personal is political’. Rather than an ideal moral position being formed by abstracting away from context as in Immanuel Kant’s classic ‘veil of ignorance’, it is the factors relating to context (such as class, gender, culture and relationships) that inform the impact and meaning of ethical decision making. In taking into account such context we have a better indication of the power relations involved and our relationships within the matrix of these relations.

A feminist-vegan ethic expands this context to include our relationships with non-human animals in our lives whether this occurs via food, our contact with domestic animals, animals in ‘the wild’ or in other settings. Given that our access to the content of these relationships is obscured and invisibilised by the mechanisms detailed throughout this paper, it would require an active ‘consciousness raising’. A feminist incursion into these hidden relations would, I suggest, work to undermine the vast web of oppressions that connect with and rely upon maintaining the ‘animal other’. An ethic of care influenced feminist-vegan politics addresses the limitations that a rights-based, ‘choice’ approach to ethics entails. Rather than ask ‘do I have a right to choose to eat meat/ use animals?’, feminists could ask ‘what kind of relationship with the oppressed ‘other’ does this (inherently political) practice rely upon?

Concluding Remarks: a Feminist-Vegan Politics

…ideas about meat, discussions about meat, are ideas about power, discussions of power…and not just power over animals, not just ideas about animals. (Adams 2010, p. 306)

An ecofeminist perspective emphasizes that one’s body is oneself, and that by inflicting violence needlessly, one’s bodily self becomes a context for violence. One becomes violent by taking part in violent food practices. The ontological implication of a feminist ethics of care is that nonhuman animals should no longer count as food. (Curtin 1991, p. 70)

As with my paper, many of the articles I have come across over the past twenty years of my reading in this area begin with some sort of personal anecdote or narrative. The sense that this is a practice that speaks intimately to our ‘personal’ life and choices therein is clear. This could be argued for many feminist issues. Yet the next step of politicising these experiences is yet to be made in any but small dis-jointed ways within feminism. Indeed, as previously noted, there has been considerable resistance at times, within the feminist community itself to doing this. Just as early feminist ‘consciousness raising’ invoked a sense of connection and understanding between women around their shared experiences I have a desire to see feminists come ‘out of the closet’ so to speak about their ‘choices’ regarding animals. I argue that we need to move away from thinking of veganism as a personal choice or ‘preference’ and toward a notion of it as a political practice encompassing radical choice considering how this might be informed by an ethic of care. The language of personal choice has been de-politicised by a liberal free-market mentality that presents the ultimate ‘freedom’ as that which allows a person to choose from as many options as possible without impediment. Veganism is often therefore viewed as a ‘consumption practice rather than a production practice’ (Adams 2010, p. 306). As long as the veganism of any individual feminist remains coded as a ‘personal lifestyle choice’ of no political import the true potential of its radical underpinnings remain silenced.


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