Animal Rights and Feminism–What’s the Connection

January 24, 2020
Photo: Jay Bergesen

A misconception emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that took feminism seriously off track: the assertion that feminism is about “the rights of everyone.” Yes, because feminism deals with the rights of half the world’s population, it has had to delve into many issues that also affect men, albeit in different ways. Feminism has had to address racism, as it affects women of color. Feminism has had to address class, as it affects working class women. Feminism has had to address sexual orientation, as it affects lesbians. But these and other serious problems also need to be addressed within their own movements, in work performed by women and men: it is not the business of feminism to solve all the world’s problems. The moment women ceased to be centered in the movement dedicated to furthering their rights, feminism itself became a tool for placing women last.

Since feminism has never been popular, it’s debatable whether defining feminism as “about everybody” has done anything for other movements. Defining a problem as a “women’s issue” at best frames it as a problem for women to solve. Since women as a group lack political and economic power, while shouldering most of the daily work of taking care of others, the group with the least resources is tasked with solving the biggest problems. Certainly women should be part of these solutions, but they are men’s problems, too, and men need to give in real ways, not just in empty grandstanding.

Making feminism about everybody’s rights does make feminism slightly more fashionable. A feminism about “men too” is a feminism more men and women can get behind. And since men’s ideas and needs are the draw for the “everybody feminism,” men quickly become the priority. Feminism that centers men is (mistakenly) lauded as “intersectional.” Feminism that centers women, such as childbirth issues, is decried as “white feminism,” although childbirth can transcend “white feminism” by reframing it in terms of those identifying as men: chest feeding, not breastfeeding; front hole, not vagina; pregnant person, not mother. At worst, “everybody feminism” destroys the concept that there can be a legitimate movement centered on women’s rights.

Feminists who are for women have grown increasingly weary of “everybody feminism,” cognizant of the deleterious effects of feminist mission creep on the women’s movement. Nowhere has this mission creep been more obvious than in the assertion that “animal rights are a feminist issue.”

Feminism is a movement concerned with the rights of women – adult human females. By definition, it is not about nonhuman animals. The rights of animals are important – with the growing eradication of whole species it can be argued that animal rights are more important than those of women – but animal rights are not the same as women’s rights.

The exploitation of animals in capitalism is indefensible. Eating animals can be defended as the cycle of life or decried as unnecessary for human survival, but the wrongness of inflicting suffering on animals should be a given. There is also overwhelming evidence that exploitative practices of the meat industry contribute greatly to global warming and other environmental pollution. The question for people invested in the wellbeing of animals (and the planet) is not whether animals are exploited by humans but how to reduce or eliminate that exploitation.

Actually, there is an additional question: how to define that exploitation. The suffering of animals at human hands is so ubiquitous that you would think this definition would be obvious, or at least that debate over the finer points could be put aside until gross injustices are remedied. But there is a tendency in social movements to equate the suffering of one constituency with that of another, one in which there is seemingly more agreement. This tendency is especially prevalent when activists feel their efforts are being stymied. When people feel like they are losing an argument, they bring up such an analogy – not to gain insight into their issue or to explain their position, but to win the debate.

The most famous example of this tendency is Godwin’s Law, the observation that any passionate sustained argument will eventually devolve into a comparison with The Holocaust. Another common occurrence brings Segregation in the South into arguments that have nothing to do with race. Then there is Sexual Violence Against Women. Apparently it happens to animals too.

To people who use these analogies, the parallels are obvious. There is hierarchy and violence; there is domination and abuse; there is perpetration and suffering. But analogies are not equations. People who use human rights analogies need to think about where these analogies break down.

Infringement on animal rights predates patriarchy. I would guess (without really knowing) that abuse in 10,000 B.C.E. was milder than today, but at the end of the Ice Age many species of mammals were hunted by humans into extinction, and not always because there were no alternatives. Humans moved to a more plant-based diet partly because we had killed so many animals (though the environmental changes precipitated the imbalance).

Animal abuse does not, usually, involve sexual gratification. Yes, men can do all kinds of bizarre sexual things, but the key word is bizarre. Bestiality is not normative male behavior, unlike sexual abuse of women.

Animal abuse occurs across species. Animal rights activists are often criticized for caring about animals yet not caring about people. Sometimes this accusation is justified, sometimes it is not, but it is an obstacle in convincing the public to refrain from supporting factory farming. Occasionally I see social media bios that say something like, “I love animals and hate people.” I wonder, do the owners of these accounts understand that dogs and cats are not reading their Facebook posts? Do they think that kind of post endears them to other humans (unless those humans are so delusional they believe they are nonhuman animals)? Do they understand what it means to be human, and can a person who doesn’t understand humans think about animal rights in a coherent way?

One argument for animal rights as feminism uses a Marxist analysis of ownership of female reproduction. The idea is that, just as patriarchy controls women’s reproduction, animal abuse is about controlling the fertility of female animals. This, to me, is a stretch. Yes, domestic female animals are used for their eggs and milk. Every animal slaughtered is some female’s baby. But I don’t think female animals, on balance, are really treated worse than males. In the rural community where I live, which is very patriarchal, the marginal agricultural environment supports goats and sheep, and the females are well cared for. The males, of no use for wool or milk, are made into burgers. Male deer are hunted and does are left alone. Dogs and cats are not pampered according to sex, but male horses are usually castrated. I’m sure there are examples of female animals treated worse or suffering more than males, but as a country girl I’m finding this a hard sell.

Women’s right are human rights. They’re not animal rights.

The false equivalency between women’s and animal rights movements has produced a backlash that is in some way understandable. This should not mean, however, that feminism should leave animal rights alone. When feminist events become inhospitable to animal rights activists, it does become an issue specifically for feminists. I’ve noted situations where multi-day feminist events did not offer vegan options, either as part of the pre-paid event meals or as option to buy elsewhere in vegan food deserts. Since veganism is an important aspect of animal rights for many women, this becomes a feminist issue in terms of barriers.

There are a lot of “feminist” issues that are not intrinsically about women’s rights. Women in literature has been recognized from the start feminist issue, with women’s words suppressed or warped by patriarchy. Women in STEM is a hot feminist issue right now, with feminists pushing to overturn barriers for girls entering science and tech fields. Yet science is not intrinsically about women’s rights; it only affects our rights tremendously. Women and religion is another important area for feminists, yet is religion itself about women’s rights, or it only used as a tool for perpetuating male dominance?

Animal rights is a women’s issue when it is an issue begging for feminist leadership and influence. Animal rights as practiced can have a “ladies’ auxiliary” aura to it, with men defining and controlling the issue and women preaching to other women about becoming vegan to be a real feminist. It reminds me of knitting socks to help the war effort. Who controls the philosophy of animal ethics, or the strategy of animal rights, and why?

There has also been an element (which may now be on the wane) of the subjugation of women through animal rights activism. I’m talking about the PETA lettuce dresses and other skimpy clothing, the women re-enacting lobsters boiling, the women subjecting themselves to animal testing. This kind of “activism,” whether promoted by women or men, has used animal rights to express hatred and objectification of women. Young women, motivated by compassion for animals, have found themselves conned by this movement. I believe that in some instances animal rights has been used as an issue to control women.

Animal rights need to be discussed within feminism, not as part of the to-do list of being a feminist, but for feminist influence in a wider movement. Why is being vegan an issue for feminists, when men eat so much more than we do? Shouldn’t they be the focus of dietary changes?

Anything can really be about feminism, but the way we know if we are practicing real feminism, versus “everybody feminism,” is by looking at how that feminism challenges the power of men. Are animal rights a feminist issue? Only as they intersect with women’s rights. Only as they affect women’s right to influence an important issue. Only as they may be used by men to dominate women. Animal rights should, in the end, be focused on animals, and there are problems with grafting a human rights model onto animals. Sometimes we have to look beyond our anthropomorphic lens.

So these are the ways animal rights becomes a feminist issue: 1) Ensuring there are no barriers to participation by vegan women in feminism; 2) Pushing for meaningful participation by feminists in the animal rights movement; and 3) Countering the way the animal rights movement is used to further subjugate women. To base analysis of the subjugation of animals on the subjugation of women, however, is unhelpful. Most people, men and women, care less about the suffering of women than that of animals, and making animal rights about feminism extends the mission creep of “everybody feminism” from men to animals.

Snowbound

January 17, 2020

Finally got some snow again, after it melted during the rains a week or so ago. I have been inside this week working on my 4th novel.

I’m also reading a book called The Last Season, about a ranger in the back country of the Sierra Nevada who goes missing. Paradoxically enough, it’s made me itch to be out in nature. One of the important tasks of winter is to dream of summer.

2020 Begins

January 3, 2020

I have now been blogging for eight years. I have posted every week, without exception, usually (but not always) on Fridays.

There have been a lot of ups and downs. When Facebook was at its heyday, I got a lot of traffic from there. Then Facebook changed its algorithms, making it harder to drive interest to a website.

I adjusted, and my traffic moved up again.

Three years ago, a marketing genius at Moon Books suggested my platform needed a single completely integrated website, not a separate blog and main site. It took over six months, since it was a major overhaul, but I did it. Traffic dropped substantially.

But over time, visitors increased again.

This year, mid-September, visits to my blog decreased 75% and stayed there, and I’m trying to figure out what happened. I assumed initially that my recent subjects weren’t as interesting to other people, or that my photos weren’t so good as in the past, or that my posts were too short or too long or not as good. But it’s more than that.

So I’m rethinking this again.

One of the hardest things about blogging, that I’ve found, is that you have to keep promoting your blog. Even many core visitors won’t return automatically, but see on social media that you’ve posted again or are otherwise reminded of your presence. Competition for online attention is fierce and becoming more fierce.

The second hardest thing about blogging is that it doesn’t necessarily drive book sales. People who read a lot of books don’t spend huge amounts of time online. I get the most traffic (here and on Twitter) when I blog about something that has political resonance, and I limit the amount of political writing I do. I’m just not interested in becoming a political blogger. I have that in common with Henry David Thoreau, who only really wanted to write about nature and birds, but got a huge amount of attention (than and now) for a little tract called Civil Disobedience. He didn’t even invent the concept; he only described and defined it well.

So I’m examining why there was a precipitous dropoff that seems to be ongoing. Moon Books stopped promoting my blogposts on Twitter about that time, so that might be the culprit. I could have been getting traffic through a link on another site, and somebody removed the link, maybe when redesigning their site or maybe because I wrote something they disagreed with. A lot of people have voluntarily moved off Twitter in the past year for their censorship policies directed toward feminists, so maybe the answer is to disengage from Twitter in favor of another hangout, just as moving from Facebook to Twitter years ago redirected my audience. I think blogs in general may be less popular than they used to be. There are more online magazines, and they are well promoted, savvy to continually evolving user tastes.

I may also have to consider whether blogging might be a poor use of my time, time better spent writing books and articles for online magazines and anthologies. I may need to choose whether to direct my energies into becoming a better self promoter (not my strong suit) or a better writer. The best self promoters, in my observation, are emotionally insecure people who strive constantly to get people to like them and stroke their egos and give them positive reinforcement. They work at it everyday, from an early age. They love social media and curry favor by pandering whatever opinion is popular. Obviously I can’t change my personality, nor do I want to.

So I’m at a turning point. I may adjust and throw myself into getting my “hits” up again, or I may take a step back and ask myself “Why?” One thing I will continue to do is keep the website. With ever increasing censorship of feminists, for dumber and dumber reasons, I can’t afford to invest too much in social media presence.

I think in 2020 there’s going to be a splintering of social media traffic, moving away from giants like Twitter and Facebook into smaller fee-paid social media groups. The media companies did it to themselves, by profiting from fake news and buying into cancel culture. The Internet as a whole may be at a turning point, not just me.