……this is a moment in which feminists should think big. Having watched the neoliberal onslaught instrumentalize our best ideas, we have an opening now in which to reclaim them. In seizing the moment, we might just bend the ark of the impending transformation in the direction of justice—and not only with respect to gender.
– Nancy Fraser1
If it is to have a lasting impact on a world historical scale, the growing movement against toxic masculinity and patriarchal power today must also necessarily be a movement against animals’ subjugation under these same forces. In the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns and the increasingly vocal resistance against male sexual aggression, this is a particularly opportune moment for women’s liberation to join forces with animal liberation.
As vegan ecofeminists have been arguing for decades, violence against women and nonhuman animals is of a piece. Male power asserts itself in large part by claiming entitlement to women’s and animal’s bodies as objects available to use, abuse, consume, and discard at will. In the oft-quoted words of Carol J. Adams, in patriarchal society both women and nonhuman animals are subjected to an endless “cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption,” in which their bodies are reduced to objects and sliced up, both symbolically and literally, into dismembered parts for male consumption.2 Women and other animals’ subjectivity is stripped away in this process leaving nothing but slabs of lifeless flesh on real and proverbial platters to satisfy men’s appetite to debase, degrade, and destroy others, particularly those who are more vulnerable than them.
Although vegan ecofeminists have already carved out a clear path for the integration of feminism and animal liberation, the majority of feminists ignore, downplay, and even actively undermine the connections. For the most part they continue to consume and, in the case of the fast-growing “femivore” movement, actively promote the killing and consuming of animals a source of female empowerment.
It is time for feminists to wake up and recognize that if they are truly committed to overthrowing patriarchal power and violence, they cannot remain impassive to the plight of vast majority of victims of violence under this system – nonhuman animals. The longer feminists continue to ignore this, the longer they will do damage to their own movement. A movement that decries sexual and reproductive violence cannot, by its own stated principles, support the systemic rape, assault, torture, and murder of billions of sentient beings.
Animal Exploitation is a Feminist Issue
Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because sexual objectification, harassment, and assault and reproductive violence are feminist issues. Carol Adams has observed that female animals are often sexualized in the media as a strategy for dealing with people’s (usually unconscious) discomfort with eating dead animals. In a hyper-sexualized culture, in which the sexual objectification of women and girls is ubiquitous, sexualizing female animals in advertisements and news articles (e.g. by dressing them in suggestive clothing, making them appear to ‘dance’ like strippers, or pose like spent prostitutes, and so on) who are going to be killed and turned into food, quiets that discomfort on some level by, for example, eliciting laughter or a (perverse) sense of lightheartedness in the face of extreme violence. Sexualizing women, dairy cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals is itself a form of violence because it liquidates the subject behind the imposed façade. Since this kind of symbolic violence against women and girls is so widespread, it is not recognized as violence but rather as ‘seduction.’ When female (nonhuman) animals are sexualized, the effect is one of shock and ridicule. A cow dressed as a stripper?! A pig as a prostitute? How disgusting . . . and how hilarious! The symbolic violence – reducing the woman, cow, or pig to an object of pleasure (in the form of sex, laughter, or food) – paves the way for physical violence such as rape and battery. There is no subject there, only a body – a body that exists solely for men’s gratification.3 Men who batter women or sexually abuse children often use threats against animals in the home to control, silence, and terrorize their victims.4
Our language also reflects and reinforces the joint sexualization and objectification of women and animals. It is no coincidence that among the worst insults for women are cow, pig, and bitch, while women who meet male approval are deemed chicks or foxes. Whether meant to insult or elevate, these terms degrade women and animals because by being categorized as an animal – particularly a female animal – a woman is vulnerable to any manner of domination and violence. This is the same for other marginalized groups. To compare them to animals gives license to degrade, abuse, and kill them with impunity.5
Sexual violence against animals is rampant in the animal industrial complex. In “Interspecies Sexual Assault” in this publication, Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns observes that the sexual violation of animals is par for the course in animal agriculture:
Farmed-animal production is and always has been based on manipulating and controlling animals’ sex lives and reproductive organs. Their bodies are up for grabs for farmers to do with as they please. Sexually abusive in essence, animal farming invites lascivious conduct and attitudes toward the animals on the part of farmers and producers.”6
But Davis points out that sexual violence is not limited to the factory farm. It extends into the research laboratory, where animals are tortured under the vivisector’s knife as well. “As in rape, so in vivisection, the victim is treated as a receptacle for the victimizer’s defilement.”7 Inappropriate touching by men is also something that girls, women, and other animals are subjected to.
The factory farming industry makes no effort to disguise the sexual violence it is involved in and uses the term “rape racks” to describe the mechanism used to artificially inseminate female animals with an “insemination gun.” So-called “dairy” cows (as if their only purpose on this earth is to pump out dairy products for human consumption and profit) develop excruciatingly painful infected lesions on their utters, which are made to grow so monstrously large that they drag along the ground tearing the skin. “Egg-laying hens” (as if their single purpose on this earth is to pump out eggs for human consumption and profit) are forced to produce such an unnaturally high number of eggs that their uteruses prolapse (literally fall out of their vaginas).
As a result of the redirection of calcium away from their own bones and towards mass egg production, they also suffer crippling osteoporosis. In the words of Joan Dunayer, “The hen’s exploiter values only her physical service, dismissing her experiential world as unimportant or nonexistent.8 Her “physical service” is effectively to be as an egg-laying machine, a slave whose reproductive capacities are exploited so much that her reproductive parts literally fall apart and out of her.
Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because pregnancy and motherhood are feminist issues. Like so many of their human counterparts around the world, pregnant females and mothers in the animal industrial complex are denied even the most basic of rights to healthy and safe environments in which to carry out their pregnancies, give birth, and nurture and care for their young. Sows are locked into gestation crates for the duration of their pregnancies, where they cannot move, turn around, or even lie down. They go insane from confinement and chew endlessly on the iron bars in front of them in a tragically futile attempt to free themselves from their torturous confinement. They have been so damaged psychologically and physically that they engage in endless repetitive behaviours as an unconscious expression of their torment and desperation.
When pigs’ babies are born the mothers are locked down with iron bars onto an iron-grated floor while their babies struggle to suckle them in these hellish conditions. Mother and babies cannot cuddle or even touch each other beyond the most instrumental contact for feeding purposes. The anguish of the immobilized mother pigs and desperation of their babies is unbearable to behold. Cows cry when their babies are taken from them and try to follow their babies down the street as they are spirited away from them for further exploitation.
Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because separating mothers (or parents) from their children is a feminist issue. Under Trump’s racist immigration laws, infants and young children have been torn apart from their mothers and fathers and thrown into detention centres, or glorified prisons, while in many cases their parents have been deported. This heinous policy has been rightly met with outrage. But where is the outrage against the separation of baby animals from their mothers as a matter of course in all industries of exploitation (including the so-called “humane” farming movement)?
Anyone who has enjoyed animals’ company in a non-exploitative environment such as an animal sanctuary or interspecies community knows just how bonded most baby animals are with their mothers and vice-versa. Baby goats stay close to their mother’s side for months on end, hiding behind her for protection when a stranger approaches, watching and learning from her. Father animals often play an important role in their babies’ lives as well. One revels at the sight of a happy duck family frolicking in the pond, babies lining up behind mom, and nestling in her and dad’s feathers at night.
As we know, the first weeks and months of a human baby’s life are absolutely critical to healthy development in later years. This is no different for nonhuman animals. If they are separated from their mothers before they are ready, and before they naturally begin to find their own way, they are severely traumatized, often irreparably so – as are their mothers. As with human mothers and children they can sometimes overcome the worst of their trauma and adapt to their new circumstances – if treated with respect – but this does not cancel out the original injustice that was inflicted upon them, nor the memories and impacts of trauma that many carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because child abuse, torture, and killing are feminist issues. The majority of animals killed and eaten by humans are babies. They are made to grow at massively accelerated rates so they can be fattened and ready for slaughter sooner (and therefore bring in profit more quickly). But they are often scarcely more than a few months old. For feminists true to their own principles, this should be an outrage. Newly hatched male chicks are swiftly spirited away to death by live maceration, a practice characterized as “practical and humane” in the Canadian “Recommended Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Poultry from Hatchery to Processing Plant.”9 Female chicks have their beaks burned off without anesthetic before being stuffed into battery cages like so much garbage, where they will suffer relentless agony until they are strung up to have their throats slit before being dunked into defeathering tanks (often while still conscious). Like their mothers, they are transformed from individual subjects with distinct personalities to uniform egg-dispensing machines. Like their mothers, their babies will, in turn, be taken from them and thrown into the steel jaws of the terrible man-made machinery of violence.
Meanwhile, baby cows are starved in veal crates where they sleep and live in their own feces for weeks or months until they are sent off, often hundreds of kilometers away, to meet terrifying deaths. Piglets are mutilated in the euphemistically named processes of toe-clipping, ear-clipping, tail-clipping, and so on, all performed without anesthetic, while other baby animals are confined to lives of terror, loneliness, sadness, and pain in industrial farming facilities, where they are deprived of even the most basic form of maternal care, tenderness, or nurturing, not to mention sunlight, fresh air, opportunities to play, cuddle, and do all the other things baby animals do.
Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because one of the defining features of toxic masculinity is that it is glorifies typically ‘masculine’ characteristics such as indifference and coldness in the face of suffering, power, aggression, violence, and conquest, on one hand, and devalues typically ‘feminine’ characteristics such as tenderness, empathy, and care on the other. (Although neither of these characteristics necessarily have any real connection to biological sex or gender, they are constructed that way.) If the systematic torture and murder of tens of billions of animals a year in the animal industrial complex is not the product of this learned ‘masculine’ detachment, I do not know what is.
Vegan ecofeminists have long noted that male identity in a society defined by hegemonic masculinity is directly tied up with animal exploitation. Marti Kheel, for example, has drawn attention to the relationship between hunting and the myth of masculinity:
The connection between hunting and masculinity is . . . commonly expressed in the notion that hunting provides an outlet for male sexuality. . . . Hunting is also frequently conceptualized as having a narrative structure that resembles a sexual encounter. There is the initial build-up of tension in the course of the chase, leading ultimately to the climax of the kill.10
With Kheel’s observations in mind, it is not surprising that the shamelessly misogynist Trump administration lifted the ban on importing elephant and other “big-game” hunt trophies from some African countries and loosened restrictions on evaluating what animal body parts can be brought in legally.11
Major institutions such as universities are not only governed by and large by men, but are driven by a masculinist logic. Lynda Birke has noted, the culture and attitude of indifference to animal suffering in scientific research laboratories is the product of a male dominated environment. In biology classes and university labs students are told, often explicitly, to desensitize themselves to animal suffering, to repress their feelings of compassion or empathy for animals in order to carry on the “cold, hard” business of subjecting dogs, cats, rats, mice and other animals to myriad physical and psychological torments in the name of “objective” scientific research. The process of detachment is particularly traumatizing to young female students, many of whom feel they have no choice but to abandon their hopes of becoming biologists and other kinds of scientists if they do not want to betray their most basic ethical sensibilities.12
There are many more reasons animal exploitation is a feminist issue which I will not explore in detail here, for the sake of scope, but will mention in passing: Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because the destruction of the earth is a feminist issue. Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because destroying indigenous communities and their land and robbing them of their traditional seeding, planting, and harvesting practices is a feminist issue. Animal exploitation is a feminist issue because hurting and devaluing others because they are not part of the same privileged group as oneself is a feminist issue…The list goes on…
Despite how obviously animal exploitation is a feminist issue, it appears that the vast majority of contemporary feminists could not care less about the fate of animals, and hypocritically support the very practices their otherwise important work condemns. Let me point to three striking examples of this tendency.
Feminist Missteps, Feminist Machismo
As is well known, Donald Trump likes to boast that steak is his “favourite food.” True to form, Trump even once owned a steak store, Trump Steaks™.13 Carol Adams observes that not just meat eating but the consumption of “red meat” in particular has been long associated with masculinity and virility.14 But rather than build on this analysis of the problematic relationship between masculine identity and ‘red meat’ consumption, Helen Rosner, food writer for The New Yorker, among other things, muses that Trump “prefers his pieces of cow with their proteins fully denatured,” and therefore may not be capable of changing our society for the better. More specifically – and outrageously – she insists that people who do not eat medium or rare steaks are afraid of taking risks and also have trust issues:
Adults who won’t eat pink-hearted steaks might lean on any number of reasons for their position, but almost always it comes down to an aversion to risk, which is at its core an unwillingness to trust the validity and goodwill of any experiences beyond the limited sphere of one’s own.15
Ultimately, Rosner surmises, “A person who won’t eat his steak any doneness but well is a person who won’t entertain the notion that there could be a better way.” In other words, if the most powerful man on earth prefers well done steak to its bloody counterpart, he is less of a man and is simply not worthy of his important political post. Rosner ends with a smug moral evaluation: “A person who refuses to try something better is a person who will never make things good.”16
According to this logic, vegans must be the most conservative and block-headed people of all. This is ironic given that in the same breath Rosner outlines the catastrophic consequences for the climate of carrying on with business-as-usual: “Suck all the natural gas out from under Pennsylvania, toxify millions of gallons of drinking water and reintroduce earthquakes to regions that had been geologically stable for millennia.”17 And yet, for all her apparent concern about climate destruction, Rosner fails to recognize that her steak-eating habits are partially responsible for said environmental calamities.
What is Rosner’s article but a litany of masculinist claims that equate killing and consuming animals, not to mention gore, with manliness, authoritative power, and, most bafflingly of all, goodness, trustworthiness, bravery? If this is what feminists with cultural cache are waxing poetic about – if this is the message Rosner’s readers are receiving and absorbing unquestioningly – feminism is in a very bad way.
Thankfully, at least one female vegetarian columnist, Christina Cauterucci (Slate), has raised eyebrows at the validity of Rosner’s claims and written a cutting intervention.18 But the fact that Rosner dreamed up such a piece in the first place, and published it a widely read publication, is serious cause for concern.
Another particularly upsetting trend among contemporary feminists is the use of pigs as symbols for perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault in the the #BalanceTonPorc19 hashtag campaign. “Balance ton porc” translates roughly to “expose your pig,” the French version of #MeToo. The apparent purpose of this hashtag campaign is to liken men who harass and assault women to pigs, and thereby somehow expose their true misogynist nature. The use of pigs to achieve this goal is misguided, offensive, and embarrassingly uncreative. Pigs are typically kind, loving, and generous creatures and often go out of their way to help others in need. Using them as representatives of male sexual aggression is a cheap and careless repetition of a tired stereotype. It is particularly ironic given how pigs are themselves frequently sexualized.20
Another confounding and disturbing development in the contemporary feminist movement is the call for women to actively participate in violence against animals as a definitively feminist act. As John Sanbonmatsu, the first and perhaps only animal studies scholar and animal advocate to date to bring this troubling phenomenon to light, explains,
Perhaps the most striking feature of the new carnivory is that it is being promoted with greatest enthusiasm and moxie not by men, as one might have thought, but by women. Women are becoming pig farmers, cattle ranchers, butchers, hunters, taxidermists. Women are reveling in the violent deaths of animals. In countless magazine and news features, TV and radio interviews, and bestselling books, we hear about women taking up killing. They stand grinning astride deers pierced with their arrows, cradling the heads of decapitated pigs, or proudly holding up hatchets stained with the blood of freshly dispatched roosters. Killing animals is no longer man’s work, the stories and films and photographs seem to say, but the very horizon of women’s empowerment and liberation.21
One of the most discomfiting features of this trend is not just that women are promoting and engaging in the exploitation and killing of animals as a putative form of liberation, but that they deliberately distorting the feminist concept of care itself into what Sanbonmatsu aptly calls a “lethal maternalism.”22 In the hands of femivores, a lamb will cherished and loved as a family member one day only to be murdered in cold blood – and with seeming relish – the next.23 Like the men who rape, assault, and kill women and animals for profit and/or pleasure, femivores, “tamp down their natural human capacity for empathy.”24
Although femivores represent only a minority of feminists so far, they are gaining ground by publishing widely read memoirs and op-eds in “liberal” publications. As Sanbonmatsu has shown, the women at the forefront of this movement are well known and well-respected feminists, such as Barbara Kingsolver, among others. Their message threatens to widen the gap between feminism and animal liberation yet further and must be challenged.
A Step in the Right Direction: Rebecca Solnit on Empathy
Despite the oversights and missteps outlined above, the newly forming discourse against toxic masculinity is a discourse that implicitly, if inadvertently, includes a critique of masculinist violence against animals. In some cases, the argument for animal liberation is already present in feminist discourse, even if feminists do not recognize it. For example, Rebecca Solnit, another outspoken feminist writer with a wide readership, frequently writes about the relationship between “extreme masculinity” and the fundamental lack of empathy that characterizes male dominated society and drives many of its worst excesses against vulnerable people, a point that echoes something ecofeminists such as Lori Gruen have been making for some time.25 In response to the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s systematic harassment and assault of actors and other women in Hollywood, Solnit writes, “It’s past time to talk seriously about the poisonous lack of empathy and imagination that lies behind the corpses and the nightmares and the everyday fears.”26 If animals are not among the most abject victims of this “poisonous lack of empathy and imagination,” I do not know who is. She goes on: “Underlying all these attacks [by men such as Harvey Weinstein on women] is a lack of empathy, a will to dominate, and an entitlement to control, harm and even take the lives of others.”27 Is it not a lack of empathy, a will to dominate, and an entitlement to control, harm, and even take the lives of others that underlies the atrocities we commit against nonhuman animals? Men’s learned “lack of empathy,” Solnit writes,
seems to be the precondition for causing horrific suffering and taking pleasure in it as a sign of one’s own power and superiority, in regarding others as worthless, as yours to harm or eliminate. “28
For Solnit, feminism is about replacing these cruel and murderous tendencies that define our male dominated society with empathy. In theory, then, Solnit’s writing on empathy could be one entry point for non-vegan feminists into a species-inclusive feminism. Solnit is, after all, making the same argument ecofeminists have been making for decades – that one of the most effective ways of undermining masculine power and preventing the cruelty (against women and animals) it engenders, is cultivating “feminine” power, most notably empathy, for all animals. And yet, while Solnit laments the systemic oppression of women and the decimation of plant and (“wild”) animal species under a patriarchal system of power, she does not, as far as I can tell, seem particularly concerned about the relentless torture and mass murder of billions of chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, goats and other herbivores in the factory farming, pharmaceutical, and other industries, and the glaring lack of empathy this violence involves.
The challenge is to convince Solnit and her followers that her call for a revolution of empathy will collapse in on itself if empathy is not extended for the most wretched victims of violence in patriarchal society: nonhuman animals. Overall, the urgent task for animal liberationists is to redefine, reclaim, and appropriate feminism as a movement of care for all species. The rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp and related campaigns across North America, Europe, and beyond provides an excellent opportunity for animal liberation to draw attention to the relationship between the oppression of women and other animals, to call the contemporary feminist movement out on its speciesist (and masculinist) tendencies, and to call for an empathy-based species-inclusive feminist movement.
- Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review, v. 56, (March-April 2009): 117. Emphasis added.
- Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (New York; London: Bloomsbury, (1990] 2015), 27
- Carol J. Adams, “The International Women’s Day Show: Uncovering the Connections Between Feminism and Animal Rights, with Carol J. Adams.”
March 3, 2017, http://animalvoices.org/2017/03/the-international-womens-day-show-with-carol-j-adams/
- Karen Davis, “Interspecies Sexual Assault: A Moral Perspective.” Animal Liberation Currents, 2017. https://www.animalliberationcurrents.com/interspecies-sexual-assault/
- Karen Davis, “Chicken-Human Relationships: From Procrustean Genocide To Empathic Anthropomorphism,” Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture: Minding the Animal Psyche, v. 83. (2010): 264.
- Joan Dunayer, “Sexist Words, Speciest Roots.” In Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations, eds Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995): 15.
- Marti Kheel, “The Killing Game: An Ecofeminist Critique of Hunting,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol 23 (1996): 38
- Rachel Nuwer, “U.S. Lifts Ban on Some Elephant and Lion Trophies,” New York Times, March 7, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/07/science/trump-elephant-trophy-hunting.html.
- See Lynda Burke, “Science, Feminism, and Animal Natures: Feminist Critiques and the Place of Animals in Science,” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 14, no. 5 (1991): 453.
- Donald Trump, “Trump Steaks” online video advertisement, published July 7, 2007, https://www.sharperimage.com/si/view/product/Trump+Steaks/888888
- Adams, Sexual Politics, 4.
- Helen Rosner, “Actually, How Trump Eats his Steak Matters,” Eater, February 28, 2017, https://www.eater.com/2017/2/28/14753248/trump-steak-well-done-ketchup-personality
- Christina Cauterucci, “Do “Real Men” Eat Steaks Rare or Well-Done? Trump’s Meat Preference Has Men Wondering,” Slate, March 2, 2017,
- “Balancetonporc,” Twitter Campaign, December 6, 2018, https://twitter.com/Balancetonporc
- See Adams’ discussion of “Ursula Hamdress,” in Sexual Politics, 20.
- John Sanbonmatsu, “Lady Macbeth at the Rotisserie: Maternalism as a Strategy for Legitimating Speciesism (Or, How ‘Femivores’ Invented the Meat Bildungsroman,’” unpublished draft sent by email upon author’s request: 1-2.
- Ibid, 9
- Ibid, 8
- Ibid, 9
- See, for example, Lori Gruen, Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for our Relationship with Animals (New York: Lantern Books, 2015).
- Rebecca Solnit, “The Fall Of Harvey Weinstein.”, Guardian, October 12, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/12/challenge-extreme-masculinity-harvey-weinstein-degrading-women