Long Read: Why Feminism Needs Veganism
We wish to make clear that we acknowledge that not all WOMEN AND female PEOPLE have the same physiology and experiences. We acknowledge that intersex, transgender, agender and other gender fluid persons can experience the sexism discussed in this essay.
Discussions of sexual abuse, animal industry practices.
I’ve been vegan for almost a decade, and have always had feminist leanings. For me, feminism has it’s place alongside anti-racism, it’s all about equality, fairness and kindness to others. In my reasoning we’re all born equal and should be afforded the same rights and compassion.
After following a few different feminist organisations in more recent years I was surprised, and I can’t deny it, disappointed, to see posts by non-vegan feminists criticising vegan feminism, attempting to explain veganism and why the two social justice movements are not connected.
I stumbled across a video put out by Everyday Feminism entitled ‘Does Feminism Require Vegetarianism or Veganism?’, where a feminist argued articulately that you don’t have to be vegan (or a vegetarian) to be a feminist, and listed a range of reasons why. I was perplexed by the fact that a feminist herself was approving of the meat and dairy industries while in the same breath stating that they oppress females by virtue of their femaleness. I was even more mystified by the reasons she gave against being vegan.
This really took me by surprise. If you are fighting against one type of oppression would you not then have sympathies at the very least towards other oppressed persons? Unsatisfied, I went searching for answers.
THE SUFFRAGETTES WERE VEGETARIAN?
In London, suffragists regularly held meetings at vegetarian restaurants. The central Covent Garden area was the heart of militant suffrage, and home to both The Gardenia Restaurant at 6 Catherine Street and Eustace Miles Restaurant at 40-42 Chandos Place.
Historically, feminism has strong links with vegetarianism and veganism. Many suffragists in the late 19th century were ethical vegetarians who stayed vegetarian even while imprisoned and took part in the anti-vivisection movement. Veganism as a concept wasn’t as formulated as it is today, but many suffragists saw meat as a product of violence. At the time, women were typically the cooks in their households, and so were the ones to handle and prepare flesh for food, for which the man of the house was first priority. Denouncing meat and preparing only plant based food was liberating.
While leading suffragists adhered to and promoted a vegetarian diet, leading vegetarian societies and publications made room for women’s voices in what was a politically challenging time to do so. So the two movements were certainly strongly linked in the years of early feminism, but how is the relationship now? Should the two continue to be linked and parallel movements?
The Everyday Feminism video was a very typical example of the rhetoric you hear against veganism, unfortunately laced with cliched assumptions and misinformation. This isn’t an attempt to call out Everyday Feminism or their contributors, but rather to bring to light the common assumptions and misguided arguments given against veganism in a range of media in different political arenas.
First off, we have the issue of health. Some claim that not everyone can be vegan because of potential health risks. This may be the most uninformed of all arguments against veganism, as studies again and again show that a plant-based diet is healthier than eating omnivorously.
Large studies in England and Germany showed that vegetarians (not even vegans) were about 40% less likely to develop cancer compared to meat eaters.
A diet free from animal products is virtually cholesterol-free and has been seen to reverse severe health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, among many others. As well as containing bacteria, animal products contain antibiotics, hormones fed to the animals to promote rapid growth or vastly unnatural milk or egg production. Animal proteins, particularly from meat and dairy are continually found to be linked to diseases such as heart disease and different types of cancer, including colon, stomach and bowel cancers, being some of the most common.
In fact, studies on diabetes have shown meat to cause the same if not a higher spike in insulin levels as sugar, and diabetes sufferers are often told to cut animal products from their diets as they have no dietary fibre.
Milk is often thought of being a staple source of calcium, but calcium from animal products actually leeches calcium from the bones, milk creates an acidic environment in the body that weakens bones, causing a higher likelihood of developing osteoporosis. Milk is also high in fat and contains somatic cells (think pus) from the very sore and often infected udders of the dairy cows it was taken from. Eggs aren’t excluded from this discussion either, as they have also been linked to diabetes, as well as high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke. These are just some of the many reasons why the egg industry can’t legally refer to their products as ‘healthy’.
There is a wealth of information on how eating animal products causes a wide range of deadly diseases on humans, this is just scratching the surface. NutritionFacts.org is a great resource for factual, science-based nutrition information.
The second argument people use with regards to veganism is that in some cultures, it is customary to kill and eat animals. This, like many arguments is quite specific, but it’s also somewhat offensive to people in such cultures to say that they are not capable of change. Everyone is capable of change, and cultures worldwide have evolved over time and developed more moral practices. A defence of ‘it’s their culture’ has been historically problematic and continues to be so. The general public are happy to speak out against things happening in some cultures if they are particularly extreme. I don’t hear many people calling out “It’s their culture,” when it comes to female genital mutilation or child brides, yet this point comes up repeatedly when giving reasons against adopting a vegan lifestyle.
A third argument commonly pitted against veganism is in regards to cost. There seems to be a huge overshadowing idea that a vegan diet, which often consists of staple foods such as rice, potatoes, beans and vegetables as being extortionately expensive. A little research and talking to vegans from a range of background will quickly assure you otherwise. Yes there may be vegans who eat exclusively organic food and go to expensive vegan restaurants regularly, but there are likely many also eating a healthy and varied diet prepared at home, inexpensively. In most places, taking meat and animal products off your shopping list and replacing them with vegetables and grains will actually save you money.
One counter-argument against this is the idea of “food deserts”, where people are unable to grow or buy fresh fruit and vegetables or grains at all, or are unable to without high cost. This is a very specific and somewhat ‘niche’ situation described, but with the huge detriment to your health that consuming animal products causes, as we have just discussed, I would be very concerned about the long-term health of these people. I struggle to imagine that people in food deserts live on only animal products, but if there are people living on such diets due to their geographical, social, economic status or otherwise, I am hardly going to push my vegan ideology to them first and foremost. I would however reach out to them to try and incorporate some vegetables and grains for the good of their health.
A linked argument to this is the notion of privilege. Some argue that veganism is only accessible to people with privilege, and such a moral ideal shouldn’t be just for those privileged. This is an incredibly problematic statement, which completely disregards all the non-privileged people who are already vegan and working against oppression.
With regards to people in the world that have no or limited access to water and food, those that are perhaps the least privileged, it is important to point out how wasteful and damaging to the planet the animal agriculture industries are. These industries destroy land, pay for mass deforestation and pollute the earth with harmful chemicals. Livestock in animal agriculture produce 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, leading to climate change which research suggests is causing worsening situations of drought and extreme weather conditions. If you care about people living in extreme cases of deprivation without access to food and water, think about keeping animal products off your plate and by extension reducing your carbon footprint by 50%.
In regards to all these arguments, I think it’s fair to say that most people who are vegan and feminist are not trying to knock down the doors of non-privileged people, marginalised groups and specific cultures and demand they become vegan feminists too. Anyone can be a vegan, anyone can be a feminist, and anyone can be both. Those promoting a vegan lifestyle are usually looking at the biggest picture, trying to spread awareness to the masses. By talking about it in person, wearing t shirts, posting online, they are promoting vegan feminism to the community around them, those that have access to the internet, watch YouTube videos, read articles on health, spirituality, food and social justice or are in linked social networks. They are not (usually, from what I have seen) singling people or groups out and making demands.
To paraphrase Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation among many other texts, this is about being as ethical as possible, about causing the least amount of suffering possible, about minimising harm. If someone is inspired by the vegan message and lifestyle but can’t commit fully because of any of the above reasons, maybe they are not ready yet, and they can make what small steps they can. They may well find the ethical lifestyle that works for them with some time.
I spoke to Dr Corey Wrenn, Sociologist and Social Justice Activist and founder of the Vegan Feminist Network. Dr Wrenn wrote about animal rights regularly, and interestingly, founded the Vegan Feminist Network in 2013 in response what she described as a “patriarchal space where we want to celebrate what men do, and we only want to recognise what men are doing.” When Dr Wrenn brought feminist theory into her animal rights work, she was met with harsh resistance, harassment and misogynistic comments from the male-dominated area of academia. Corey wanted to make a space to bring attention to current, modern, digital-age vegan and feminist issues, giving platform to other women and marginalised groups who were not getting recognition. And so the Vegan Feminist Network was born.
As a sociologist specialising in social justice movements, what does Dr Wrenn think of the state of affairs between the two movements?
Dr Wrenn sees one particular problem arising across different social justice movements, where they struggle to think outside of the particular movement they are so passionate about and see their links to other movements. “It’s endemic to all social movements,” she tells me, “and it’s because we think so single-issue and we cant think intersectionally.” So it’s not just feminism and veganism that need some help in joining together to fight oppression, it’s a common problem in different areas of social justice: combating racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism and so on.
But what is it explicitly that makes the links between feminism and veganism so evident that this argument continues to come up?
On a very basic level, it is plain to see that female animals in agricultural industries are exploited by virtue of their female reproductive systems. A dairy cow lives in a cycle of being impregnated by a “rape rack” (industry term), giving birth to a calf that is taken away from her often immediately, leaving her traumatised and having her milk pumped out of her udder by machines for months afterwards, before the impregnation process starts again. This cycle lasts for up to four years until she is unable to produce milk due to exhaustion from producing such unnatural amounts. She is then sent to slaughter for the meat industry. This is also typical treatment for goats in production of goats milk and cheese.
Similarly, eggs are essentially the unfertilised menstrual cycle of female chickens. These chickens are bred to produce an unnatural 300 eggs per year, with exhausting detriment to their physical health, before they either die - as many do - from ill health and exhaustion, or are sold to slaughter for the meat industry.
These animals are exploited because they are female and their reproductive systems produce bodily secretions that are of value to agricultural industries.
This is not to disregard in any way the suffering of male animals in these industries. Male calves, if they are not shot on their first day of life, are taken from their mothers at birth and, traumatised from separation, are forced to live a very short life stuck in a crate no bigger than 30x72inches which stop them exercising and growing regular muscles to keep their meat ‘tender’. Sexual abuse in the dairy industry is not limited to females either, bulls, boars, rams and other males are held in contraptions and force masturbated to produce semen for insemination of dairy cows and other dairy producers. In some cases farmers use an “electroejaculator” which shocks the animal and can leave them writhing in pain. Male chicks are seen as surplus to demand as they do not lay eggs, and are killed in grinders, piled into bins and buckets to be crushed and suffocated or meet an equally unkind death by other means.
Aside from the exploitation of female animals specifically, there are strong links between the oppression of women and the oppression of animals, from a sociological standpoint. Sociologists use a framework to understand systems of power, oppression and inequality generally within the capitalist framework, and Dr Wrenn notes a clear parallel of these systems being used. She says:
“We have the same mechanisms of oppression happening for non human animals that we have happening for women, for people of colour, for older people, for disabled people, etc. The same very mechanisms are at work.
“We objectify, we ‘other’ise, we create hierarchies, we create hierarchies of moral concern in work - who is at the top, who has privilege, and who is at the bottom creating that privilege, and who’s being made vulnerable in order to sustain this system of inequality.”
So the same framework that oppresses women, people of colour, people with disabilities and other oppressed human groups, is also used in oppressing and using nonhuman animals.
When it comes to both human and nonhuman female oppression, we use the same objectification, the same otherness and the same exploitation. Animals are regularly reduced to their parts; breasts, legs, thighs, and women are often reduced to the same. We’ve all heard the term “legs man” or “boobs man” to describe a man who favours different parts of a woman. This use of language continues, as many offensive terms directed at women are also directed at animals, or derived from them.
“The female body is especially of value in the capitalist system, and this is one reason why it’s a feminist issue.” Says Dr Wrenn, for her the case is clear; “If as a feminist you care about state violence and industry violence on female bodies, you need to include nonhuman animals. You need to consider a vegan ethic.”
What’s important here is the nature of oppression. Veganism and feminism are linked by the very way these groups are oppressed, and therefore so is racism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sexism and other varying forms of discrimination. Oppression is wide-ranging and connected. As Dr Wrenn, says:
“It’s not just a feminist issue, you can say the same process is happening to uphold ableism, to uphold racism, etc.”
Vegan feminists have been outspoken about pushing back and including the oppression of species because it is the same argument. As Dr Wrenn stated, “You cannot truly understand the nature of oppression as long as you are ignoring some of the most oppressed persons in our society.”
Nonhuman animals are at the very bottom, and as long as we have a society and a framework that supports their oppression, that framework will continue to hurt other humans, even though they are more privileged in comparison to nonhuman animals.
Something that is easily overlooked in this whole debate of oppression and frameworks and different marginalised groups, is that nonhuman animals themselves experience a form of oppression and discrimination that is wholly their own. It’s not that they are oppressed or exploited like women, or like people of colour, they are exploited because they are animals in their own different and unique ways.
Non vegan feminists talking about veganism in critical ways “erases and invisiblises” the work of vegan feminists in this field, says Dr Wrenn. “It’s just one more way to write it off and seem like they have the upper hand. It’s not just erasing women’s work in the animal rights movement, but also completely erasing the fact that nonhuman animals are persons too and they suffer as well. It’s completely unacceptable to just write that off.”
So what did I find out about feminism, veganism and oppression?
Many will argue, myself included, that if you care about feminism, the oppression of females, you should by extension care about the oppression of people of colour, of older people, of disabled people, of other marginalised people, and of animals. Oppression is not a single issue, yet social movements continue to struggle to think intersectionally, to their detriment.
As Dr Wrenn explained: “Being single-issue is seriously disempowering to social justice movements and until we start thinking as a society that we cannot be single-issue, all of these problems of racism, classism, sexism, speciesism, they are all going to continue. The feminist movement is not alone in this regard.”
We need to think intersectionally and push back against all systems of oppression, working to empower all oppressed groups. If we want equality we need to work towards equality for all, including the most oppressed of all; animals. We simply cannot be single-issue about understanding inequality, because it is not single-issue.
Dr Corey Wrenn Ph.D is a Lecturer of Sociology with Monmouth University specialising in Social Movement Theory. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (2016) and founder of Vegan Feminist Network .com.