Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Should feminists be vegetarian/vegan?

When I was growing up, my mum and dad were vegetarian. When I ate with my parents, I ate vegetarian food. When I was at my grandparents' houses, or at school, or out anywhere else, I ate meat. When I was eleven, I did a school project about battery farming and vivisection and promptly became vegetarian (halfway through a chicken curry). Over the past year I've been eating less and less dairy and eggs. This is a consequence of dating a vegan, dairy and eggs being really fucking expensive and a growing discomfort with eating them. A little while ago I decided to nail my colours to the mast and go vegan.

What does it mean to be a vegan? It's defined here by Vegan Action as:
someone who, for various reasons, chooses to avoid using or consuming animal products. While vegetarians choose not to use flesh foods, vegans also avoid dairy and eggs, as well as fur, leather, wool, down, and cosmetics or chemical products tested on animals.
That's a fairly accurate summary of what I do (or rather don't do). There's different ideas and feelings and loads of wonderful lefty infighting surrounding veganism - I've genuinely seen an argument about whether it's 'truly vegan' to have a wormery. But the main thing for most people is to avoid animal products wherever possible (no one expects you to starve to death or severely endanger your health rather than consume an animal product, and the little boundaries are yours to define for yourself).
He's a level 5 vegan. He won't eat anything that casts a shadow.

Why am I telling you this? Because yesterday my interest was piqued by a podcast titled "Should feminists be vegetarian?" (accompanying article here). I mentioned it on Twitter and lots of people seemed surprised that some people draw a connection, so I thought I'd write about the show and my reactions to it so people were aware about another branch of feminism they possibly hadn't heard of before.

The show was set up in (to my eyes) a very odd manner. The first half of the show was an interview with Kathryn Paxton George, author of Animal, Vegetable or Woman? (A Feminist Critique of Ethical Vegetarianism), who does not just argue that no, feminists do not need to be vegetarian, but rather that feminists should not be vegetarian. This mainly consists of her knocking down strawmen (strawwomen? strawcows?) and exorcising what seems to be some unspoken personal issues. It is then followed by an interview with Sheri Lucas, who wrote a rebuttal to George's book titled A Defence of the Feminist-Vegetarian Connection, who spends most of her interview time rebutting George's (frankly odd) strawmen and about two minutes listing what some people seem to be the connection between feminism and vegetarianism/veganism. If I had done this, I would have interviewed someone who actually argues all feminists should be vegetarian/vegan (Lucas does not, she is a vegan for purely ethical reasons but is aware of the parallels drawn) and then interviewed someone arguing against them. But that's just me.

To make this article read a little better, I will list the main arguments in favour of the feminist-vegetarian connection with no comment, then will list George's arguments with Lucas' (and my own) rebuttals, and then offer an opinion of my own.

The feminist-vegetarian connection is usually illustrated using the following arguments:

  • Feminists should be against all oppression, not just one kind - especially as oppressions are so often interlinked
  • Women often speak about being treated 'like meat', and are often called names of animals to be degraded (cow, bitch etc.)
  • Animals, like women, are exploited for their bodies and what they can do
  • It's usually female animals who are exploited the most (male animals are studs or killed) - shown through the consumption of eggs, milk and so on
  • Women speak about being 'objectified' - when an animal is killed for food it is literally turned into an object
Carol J Adams wrote about some of these arguments in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, which has been discussed by vegetarian feminists here and here.

Now before we can look at some of George's 'interesting' arguments, I want to quickly share the history she shares on the show. George turned vegetarian in 1986 after reading philosophical works on the matter (these seemed to be written by academics that she knew, she herself is a professor of philosophy). After a few years, she was reluctant to give her child a vegetarian/vegan diet (which is unclear), and had what appears to be a very messy split from the academic vegetarian community. Far be it from me to cast aspersions onto a respected academic, but one must wonder if the fervour with which George denounces the diets and the ludicrous and easily solved arguments she comes up with against them are the result of a personal vendetta against a community rather than the result of 'real' concerns.

The first argument George uses is that 'all the research' on the safety of vegetarian/vegan diets was originally conducted on men. Not only this, but because women and children have different dietary needs, this is positively anti-feminist as, she asserts, a vegan diet requires 'keeping up with men'. She then, for some reason, flat-out denies any environmental benefits to a vegan diet. As you may imagine, I have several problems with this. To start, lots of things were originally tested on men and excluded women. Medicine, for example. In fact, I'm fairly sure plenty of medicines require different doses for different people because of their fat:muscle ratios, height, body mass etc. I don't see anyone decrying that as 'anti-feminist' (oh and biological essentialism and binary gender theory much?). Also, I fail to see how women taking care of their bodies in different ways from men is 'keeping up with men'. It's just being healthy. Sheri Lucas points out that a well planned vegan diet can be suitable for all, and adds that slight nutrition problems in humans which can be rectified by a small change in diet or the use of supplements is trivial in comparison to animals suffering in factory farms and being killed. I'd like to further add to this that not only is it perfectly possible to have a healthy vegan diet, even a quite crappy vegan diet will be healthier than an average meat-eater's. *awaits flaming*

George then brings up the argument that because a vegan diet is not possible to everyone in the world it is somehow 'elitist' (although she does acknowledge at this point, and at several other points, that it is perfectly possible to have a healthy vegan diet 'in industrialised societies'). What, she asks, are we to say to Eskimos? They had to eat meat, you can't really grow vegetables on the Arctic tundra. Do vegans hate the Inuit people?!?!? Well, in a word: No. Lucas slays this straw-polar bear pretty easily (it's straw, straw is vegan, she can kill that), pointing out that just because some people can't afford to buy clothing that's not made in sweatshops doesn't mean those who can afford not to should buy it. The fact that some people are forced to make those choices is the issue we should be concerned with. She also points out that it's more 'elitist' to know that you could easily make an ethical choice but not do it because of your greed. When discussing Inuits specifically, and the fact that traditionally women have been involved with seal hunts, Lucas points out that not all traditions are inherently good by virtue of being 'traditional', and tradition has always been used as an excuse for sexism, racism, homophobia etc. For instance, 'traditional' circuses involve animals being abused, and that's not something people (even non-vegetarians) are prepared to put up with. Finally, a vegan diet is a personal choice about a person's own personal diet. It's not up to us to tell people (or cultures) what to put in their mouth, it's about what we want to put in our own, and no one is expected to starve in frozen wastelands rather than eat a bit of blubber.

At this point, the presenter asks George about one of the vegan-feminist arguments - that speciesism equals participating in oppression, and that feminists should be against all oppression. George brushes this off by talking about how the Animal Welfare Act means animals have to be killed humanely, therefore there's no oppression. Aside from the fact that adding the word 'humane' in front of it doesn't really change the definition of 'killing'. She says that women, on the contrary, are oppressed and have violence committed against them so men can enjoy greater social freedom. Yep, can't see any oppression or violence in a chicken being kept in a tiny cage and having its beak clipped off with burning tongs. 

George is then asked about another argument - that parallels may be drawn between the objectification of animals and the objectification of women. Apparently because morality is built around human interaction, you can't talk about morality with regard to animals. She says this after just mentioning the Animal Welfare Act, so excuse me if I just dismiss this out of hand on that basis. She also says that 'those who objectify women can satisfy their needs in other ways' - and then five seconds later admits that this is true for humans eating animal products.

She then talks for a while about some super-dogmatic vegan she once met who thought that big cats in Africa could be trained to eat grass. And I'm with her on this, that's fucking stupid. But it's also fucking stupid to think that one vegan saying something ridiculous means no one should be a vegan. By George's own logic no-one should eat meat because of all the ridiculous things she says - earlier in the programme (I can't remember where), she asserts that no one should ever be vegan because babies need breastmilk. The last time I checked, women were humans. Lucas does raise an interesting debate about what vegan pet-owners feed their carnivorous animals (spoiler: usually pet food, since being vegan is about your own diet and no one wants to hurt an animal who's dietary needs have not been fully studied for their own beliefs).  

Finally, the presenter asks George if there are ethical dietary choices to be made while rejecting vegetarianism/veganism. Her solution is for everyone to eat less, then erects another double-strawman about people having to put their own dietary needs before their ethical conscience. Well, no vegan is asking someone to risk their life to satisfy an ethical choice, and there's far more negative health impacts from eating meat than from not eating it. She makes vague allusions to other arguments during the interview, and I'd highly recommend reading the reviews for her book for a list of other reasons she is wrong.

After all this, Sheri Lucas is interviewed. As I mentioned above, she spends most of her time knocking down George's strawmen, but there were a couple of other things she discussed. Firstly, she discussed other arguments she's heard (from friends and family) against veganism, and a common one is what she terms 'the saint fallacy'. She illustrates this by talking about a relative who was challenging her on her diet who found out she hadn't yet registered as an organ donor, then tried to use this to say that because she wasn't perfect, she should just eat meat. All I can say to this is that no vegan is trying to be perfect. Not being the best at one issue doesn't mean that you should give up all your ethical convictions, you should just try to be better at the one issue! (Or not, depending on how strongly you feel about it - this is something we will return to)

She also points out, to people who want to try a vegetarian/vegan diet but are worried about the availability of substitutes and supplements etc. that the more people reject less compassionate options, the more ethical options become available - look at the boom of Fairtrade goods in the UK for one example of this.

Right, on to my opinions. 

Do I think all feminists should be vegetarian/vegan? No. I mean, it would be awesome if they were, but at the end of the day, you don't have to be a vegan to be a feminist, and you don't have to be a feminist to be a vegan (as I have found out to my chagrin).

I think that the vegetarian-feminist arguments are important, insofar as they highlight interesting parallels to be drawn between systems of oppression and make us realise that there is no 'one struggle', but rather a system of kyriarchy under which everything is interlinked.

The main problem I have with meat eaters isn't that they eat meat - that's their choice, but rather how angry and argumentative they get when they encounter a vegan or a vegetarian. It's another interesting parallel to draw with feminism - people who perpetuate these systems of oppression seem to be equally adamant that anyone who challenges them is 'stupid' and can be argued out of their ethical choice with 'cunning' questions ("What would we do with all the animals?" and "What if some women like being harassed on the street?" being two eye-roll-worthy examples). Put simply, it's my body, it's my damn mouth and I'm not taking your meat away from you.

One final comment I'd like to make about this whole thing is that I see veganism as analogous to not smoking. It's a choice that's healthier and undeniably more ethical - however, as a smoker, I don't harangue non-smokers about why they're not smoking whilst citing some mild benefit that may result (some studies show smoking slightly reduces the risk of Alzheimer's), especially when I know that the health risks of my choice are far greater. I have made the decision to smoke, and the only reason for that is because I like it. I would suggest that it's the only argument in favour of eating meat too. But that's cool, it's your body.

Bearing that in mind, I'd like to ask that if a comment you want to make contains anything you see in the image below, you just don't bother saying it:




19 comments:

  1. Just to add, I know I haven't mentioned PETA and their wonderful plan to liberate animals by oppressing women in this post. That's because PETA are fucking idiots who no one, vegan or meat eater, should take seriously.

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  2. Sorry, just deleted a long and tedious comment before posting it. Summary: really enjoyed your post, thought-provoking and sane.

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  3. Nice piece. I'm a lifelong vegetarian who tried to be vegan one summer and failed miserably. I might go vegan again if I get in control of my own food supply, but given I'm mostly eating tinned macaroni cheese, it's tough at the moment.

    I try to have as little negative effect on my surroundings as possible. I may well be a feminist, but I don't think I can say if I am one or not. My main rule for living is to tread softly and speak loudly, and harming humans or animals doesn't come under treading softly.

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  4. @Hann

    The most basic definition of feminism is 'equal rights of opportunity and consequence among genders', so you probably are :)

    I LOVE the 'tread softly, speak loudly' thing - it perfectly sums up my views.

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  5. Awesome post. I was vegetarian for 4 years, back to omnivore, vegan for 9 months and back to omnivore again. Not the usual "path" haha. The only reason I eat meat, is, as you say, because I like it. I try to limit the damage by eating vegan at least 75% of the time (I don't buy meat from supermarkets or dairy milk etc) For those who have access to affordable plant-based food, toiletries and household products, veg*nism is clearly the more ethical option as you say.

    What are your views on the fact that medicine is by no means vegan - from gelatine capsules to animal tested contraception to egg-grown vaccinations?

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  6. I'm suprised that Omnivore Bingo didn't include the classics:

    "Wasn't HITLER a vegetarian?!!!"

    and

    "well thats fine for you trendy guardian reading liberals, but what about ordinary working class people who can't afford organic carrots from Waitrose?"

    nice blog :)

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  7. The single most compelling (to my mind) reason to be a vegetarian or vegan has nothing to do with any of the issues George raises. It's because the western demand for a meat-based diet is a significant contributor to food insecurity in the developing world. I don't really think it needs explaining how solidarity with our sisters in the Global South is a feminist value.

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  8. @PlanetNishy That's a place where everyone draws their own line. Personally, I would always seek out an alternative (you can ask your GP to prescribe antibiotics that aren't in gelatine capsules etc.) but wouldn't endanger my health. It's worth noting, as Lucas said in the podcast, that the more people demand ethical alternatives, the more there will be.

    @WelshAgenda Yeah, I can't believe they missed the Hitler one out! It's such a silly argument - even if Hitler was vegetarian (and evidence says he wasn't), the rest of the Nazis ate meat, as did pretty much every other genocidal dictator in history.

    @WendyLyon That's an excellent point, and I'm kicking myself for forgetting to include it (it wasn't mentioned in the show).

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  9. Hi
    I used Pure Vegan B12 spray.There is also a cheaper version that does not advertise vegan but says so on the label called Pure Advantage B12. The ingredients are identical.

    Vegan

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  10. A good post on a really odd discussion. I had never considered vegetarianism and feminism to really relate all that much, so the idea of vegetarianism from a feminist perspective never crossed my mind.

    I used to be a vegetarian, but I wasn't very good at it. I was dating the daughter of a cow farmer at the time, and both her, her parents and mine would insist on giving me meaty meals in spite of my beliefs. I'll probably get back into it again.

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  11. I quite admire vegans, and sometimes I wish I had the strength of mind to be one. My sister eats an 80% vegan diet for medical reasons, and seems to do well on it and enjoy it a lot.

    However, I still eat meat. Probably if I examined them closely my reasons for being a meat eater largely come out of laziness and acceptance of a cultural norm. What I'm doing at the moment is trying to limit the amount of meat I eat, trying to make sure it's responsibly sourced, and trying to include more vegetables in my diet.

    I don't particularly think that my eating meat says much about my political opinions above the level of me thinking that it should be legal and acceptable to farm animals for food. I certainly don't think it says much about my attitude to women or my attitude to equality.

    This is probably over-simplistic as a way to look at it, sorry.

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  12. My phone ate my last comment. In any event, I have been reading your blog since I stumbled on it the other day, and have quite enjoyed it. I am a strong believer in relieving all levels of oppression, though I think I lean further left than you might.

    In any event, look forward to reading more of your blog :)

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  13. @Ivan - I'm very intrigued as to how you feel you're further left than I am. No one's ever said that to me before!

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  14. Just to clarify, I wasn't trying to be "lefter than thou" :) I tend to fall somewhere between a classic marxist-leninist and left communist, i.e. abolition of capital, ownership of the means of production and eventual abolition of the state. Some of these are a bit more achievable than others ;)

    Im fairly pro-soviet though there were obviously significant issues (freedom of speech, equality for gay people etc) there.


    So I have a question I hope you can help with: Can you recommend any authors whether in bookform or on the interwebs that discuss womens liberation in the larger context of opposing all oppression?

    The bits of feminism I have read have mostly revolved around equalising gender roles within the capitalist system, which to me makes about as much sense as making vegan hot dogs (Im sure they exist so maybe thats a stupid analogy).

    In any event, thank you for your time!

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  15. @Ivan - Funnily enough, I wrote about anarcha-feminism and feminist anti-capitalism this very morning!

    http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/01/why_im_an_anarc

    As for other things, do you mean intersecting oppressions? If so, I'd recommend Racialicious and Womanist Musings, who both write about feminist issues affecting women of colour to start with, just as an example of what is probably the most common overlapping oppression.

    I also currently have approximately eight-hundred million bookmarks on loads of different types of issues I'm trying to educate myself on (trans rights, rights of intersex people, rights of people with disabilities, LGBQ rights, asexuality etc.) which can all be looked at from a feminist perspective (and are usually found on feminist sites), so let me know if there's anything you're particularly interested in and I'll try hook you up with some links.

    Also - vegan hot dogs can be done (with varying degrees of success) - feminist capitalism? I wouldn't say so :)

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  16. Very nice post. "manarchism" made me laugh, but that isn't much different from experiences in anarchist Spain either during the civil war. I guess the real question then becomes how people raised in repressive social opinions and views transcend them on a mass scale, especially if done through direct democracy rather than a party/vanguard model (which has its own significant dangers of course).

    Your article there touches on what I was getting at, actually. The notion that we can reform to a "kinder gentler capitalism" which would then make women, not-white people, religious minorities, people with disabilities etc etc etc etc etc magically equally treated is magic pixie dust as far as I figure.

    I'll take your word on the vegan hot dog though the thought fills me with dread :)
    My wife and I try to limit the amount of meat we consume, but we haven't shaken the habit as of yet. Industrialised slaughter is disgusting beyond word though.
    I guess it's been less of a priority in the big picture, you know?

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  17. Hi! I think you and I may be one of the few people interested in the connection between veganism and feminism apart from K. George :)
    My MA thesis was focused on the alimentary and the ethical, especially with regards to"obesity" (I prefer to use the term "nonnormative bodies") and what are called "eating disorders" (or "nonnormative alimentary practices") which disproportionately affect women. I was trying to find a way of thinking about such bodies and practices in a way that is not pathologizing, but rather looking to unleash their potential for informing an embodied sort of ethics.
    Since veganism/vegetarianism is one place that seems an obvious intersection of the alimentary and the ethical, I had a chapter on it. I scanned the back issues of many feminist journals between 1970s and 2000s and found almost nothing on obesity and very little on eating disorders. But there was one interesting debate spanning several issues of one of the journals between 1994-1995 ignited by none other than K. George. The debate began with K. George's piece basically laying out the argument you summarize above. She is harshly criticized by Carol Adams, Donovan and other feminists who think feminists can and should be vegans. The back and forth goes on for a couple issues. The opposing parties keep citing different research papers and scientific findings to back up their claims while attacking each other's moral character, accusing one another of cartesianism etc.

    I was very intrigued by this debate at the time I discovered it about four years ago. I was very surprised that a seemingly embodied ethics such as veganism came under crisis when the materiality of actual bodies in their needs were discussed.
    Both George and her opponents seemed to agree on one thing though: that an ethical stance cannot be evaluated scientifically. It seemed to me that this was partly why George got such harsh criticism, because her critique raised the issue of the body engaging in this ethical act, although in her writing she also strictly separated ethics from biology.
    (On second thought, this also seems to be echoed in all anti-vegan arguments. When they can't debunk the ethical arguments they begin to tackle the science: "but where do you get B12? calcium? iron? etc." When all those questions are answered, they have to go back to attacking moral character so then comes the "Hitler was a vegetarian" bit :D)

    But now I'm really surprised that George is still going around with this argument from 1994, it's the very same argument, almost word for word. So I think what you're sensing is correct: that she is probably still sore from this former clash.

    Also it is, as you say, very weird that the point of view that actually argues feminists should be vegan/vegetarian was not at all represented in the show.
    Maybe they couldn't find anyone who thought this way and took George seriously.

    I was asked to write a piece in a feminist journal in Turkey for their upcoming issue which will feature topics about food and women. I recently became vegan so I thought I would revisit this argument again and maybe make an article out of it. I wanted to see if there was any new debates on the issue and ran into your wonderful blog along the way :)
    Like you I'm also interested in all the parallels between the exploitation of animals and women in patriarchy and would like to explore this issue further.
    I wasn't really satisfied by Carol Adams's ideas though. Her arguments seemed very culturally limited. For instance her linguistic argument doesn't hold water when transferred to other languages. In Turkish meat and flesh are the same word, also there are no euphemisms in Turkish language like "beef" instead of cow's flesh. This doesn't prevent people from eating meat. So her argument that this linguistic distancing allows for exploitation falls apart right there. I'm still interested in drawing parallels but perhaps from a different angle.



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    1. Hi, sorry I haven't been able to reply to this fully - if you're interested in looking at the topic further I'd recommend this post by VeganFeministAgitator - I've just discovered her blog today but she seems to be a good person to go to in order to get more information on the subject, and a lot more eloquently than I could put it!

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  18. Thank you so much for the recommendation, loved that blog :) I found lots of sites and blogs specifically about this connection. Here are a couple that seem the most relevant:
    http://veganfeminist.blogspot.com/
    http://www.vegansoapbox.com/relating-veganism-to-feminism/
    http://www.theveganwoman.com/feminism-the-next-step/
    Carol Adams's site:
    http://www.caroljadams.com/index.html


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