Feminism must stop ignoring animals
- Published: 23 February 2012
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The goal of feminism is to dismantle the hierarchical system that values certain groups over others: men over women, whites over blacks, straights over gays and so on. This false hierarchy permits the exploitation of those at the bottom by the powerful at the top. But mainstream feminism is failing to include non-human animals in the equation – and this needs to change, writes Ruby Hamad.
23 February 2012
2011 will go down as the year when animal advocacy, long considered a fringe issue, blasted into the Australian mainstream.
Such was the impact of A Bloody Business, the explosive Four Corners investigation into the live cattle export trade to Indonesia that the team picked up the Gold Walkely, a prestigious journalistic award .
Lyn White, of Animals Australia, who provided the ABC with the raw footage of the abuses in the Indonesian abattoirs, was a state finalist in the Australian of the Year awards. She was also crowned Crikey’s Person of the Year and ABC News Radio’s Newsmaker of the Year.
Already 2012 is shaping up to be an even bigger one for the animal rights movement.
Voiceless, the animal protection institute, and vocal critic of intensive, ‘factory’ farming methods, recently announced a literary prize for writers willing to ‘give voice to the most vulnerable amongst us’.
In a move which signifies just how far into the mainstream animal welfare concerns are edging, the prize is being sponsored and spruiked in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Never has the plight of animals occupied such a prominent place in the public consciousness.
However, whilst some improvements are slowly being made in their welfare, their status as commodities means animals remain vulnerable to shocking abuse.
At one point or another, many of Western society’s most marginalised groups have suffered the indignity of being regarded as property. It is to the credit of feminists and slavery abolitionists that, in a legal sense at least, this is no longer the case.
The slow road to abolition and women’s enfranchisement demonstrates how society rarely progresses on its own and often needs to be pushed. Animals cannot resist their conditions so any change to their circumstances is dependant on human intervention.
The link between feminism and animal rights
Animal rights activism is often dismissed with the admonishment that we need to ‘sort out’ human problems first. However, as both a feminist and animal rights advocate, I do not see these issues as distinct.
First, let’s be clear about what animal ‘rights’ actually means. Animals don’t have the same interests as humans so they don’t require the same rights.
What animals, as sentient beings, require and deserve, is the right not to be the property of another, but to live, as Jeffrey Masson, author of The Pig Who Sang To The Moon, a key book on animal emotions, writes, “the way in which evolution intended them to live”.
This is where feminism comes in. It is not a coincidence that women dominate the animal rights movement. As the victims of long-term historical oppression, women can readily empathise with the plight of animals because they recognise oppression when it occurs. However, mainstream feminism is yet to acknowledge how animal and women’s oppression are linked.
The goal of feminism is to dismantle the hierarchical system that values certain groups over others: men over women, whites over blacks, straights over gays and so on. This false hierarchy permits the exploitation of those at the bottom by the powerful at the top.
How does this relate to animals?
In order to eliminate exploitation, feminism must seek to protect those most at risk. It is not an exaggeration to say that our society is built on the exploitation of animals.
They are the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicine we take, the products we use, the entertainment we watch, the sports we bet on.
Furthermore, feminism and animal advocacy make natural allies given that it is the abuse of the reproductive capacity of female animals that perpetuates animal exploitation.
Egg-laying hens are crammed into battery cages for up to two years until they are ‘spent’ and slaughtered.
Sows, whose entire lives are spent in a continual cycle of pregnancy and birth, are confined in gestational stalls barely bigger than their own bodies.
Dairy cows are artificially inseminated every year of their lives until their milk dries up. The apparatus in which cows are restrained during insemination is known in the industry, particularly in the US, as a ‘rape rack.’
Unnaturally forced into the reproductive role, these female animals are then denied the opportunity to nurture their young. Their milk, eggs and offspring are subsumed into the industry cycle, marketed and sold for human consumption, much as women’s bodies are marketed and sold for male consumption.
Discrimination versus dehumanisation
When animal advocates make these comparisons they are often accused of dehumanising historically marginalised groups. However, as Marjorie Spiegel wrote in The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, such comparisons are not intended to equate humans and animals so much as highlight the ways in which discrimination against one group opens the door to the discrimination of others.
Those who benefit from animal exploitation also take offence because it highlights their dubious practices.
The treatment to which we subject billions of animals would be considered a holocaust if applied to humans. Yet, it is normalised because animals are considered so ‘other’ that their suffering is tolerated.
Simply speaking, it is in their interests to expound on the so-called differences between human and non-human animals because it is these very differences that justify animal abuse and exploitation.
It is important to note here that the reasons cited for denying rights to animals are the same that were used to do the same to women and black slaves. Deemed soulless, women and blacks were said to lack sufficient intellect to deserve autonomy.
Baby animals continue to be taken away from their mothers with the same assurances given when black women suffered the same abuse. They don’t love them like us. They won’t remember them like us. They are not us.
‘They are not us’ is, of course, the claim on which all discrimination is based. Animals differ to us, but if we accept difference as permission to exploit them, then we undermine one of feminism’s essential tenets.
Fighting women’s oppression whilst simultaneously perpetuating animal oppression is a contradictory and self-defeating stance feminism must reconsider.
Second wave feminism was rightly criticised for being centred on the struggles and interests of white, middle class women. The third wave responded by recognising how different forms of oppression intersect (although second wave eco-feminists such as Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan were making these connections in the ’70s and ’80s) and broadened its scope to encompass class, race and sexuality in its vision.
The fourth wave of feminism must include the intersection of animal and human oppression. If feminists are serious about fighting discrimination in all its forms then they must consider animal rights as equally worthwhile as human rights.
To do less is to keep the door to ‘otherisation’ wide open and give tacit support to the concept that some groups are entitled to the ownership and control of others.
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer. She has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC Unleashed, Crikey, and New Matilda. Her passion is pursuing social justice, including justice for the most vulnerable amongst us, non-human animals.