Feminism and Veganism

On Tuesday, November 15th I had the amazing opportunity to speak with students from the Penn Vegan Society and the Penn Association for Gender Equity (PAGE).  My presentation focused on visual representations in both dairy advertising and vegan advocacy; where women’s bodies have been used to re-instantiate gender norms, challenge them, and/or challenge the normalization/naturalization of the larger dairy industry.   I hoped to provide participants with language and questions to help them better engage in the thoughtful promotion of their dietary activism: considering not only the implications of certain imagery, but also how they may successfully frame their concerns and goals as vegans and as feminists.


In the beginning of my talk, I spoke to the narrative challenges we all have when trying to argue for the acknowledgment of oppressive systems held in nonhuman nature.  I laid out quick, “simple” narrative histories in ecofeminism and vegetarian-feminist theory, when scholars in the 1980s and 1990s were encouraging nonhuman advocates (environmentalists and vegetarians) to pay closer attention to how systems of oppression are connected (really saying, “Hey!  You need to be paying attention to the patriarchy, like feminism does!”).   However, moving from human systems of oppression to nonhuman ones in advocacy (saying, “You’re a feminist, so you also need to be a vegan!”) doesn’t work as well in narrative or visual frames.   Human welfare and animal welfare issues often become blurred in these circumstances, and this has serious ethical repercussions.  Not only does it essentialize women (muting differences in gender, sexuality, race, and class from further critical engagement) it also tends to sexualize them, particularly when trying to illustrate the case against a food system predicated on reproductive organs and biological milk production.

Should vegan advocacy focus solely on the female body (human and animal) to make a case against bovine milk consumption?  It might not be the most successful narrative frame to use, or even the most productive.  For example, one of the topics I wanted to address in the talk (and didn’t have time to emphasize!) was the role of science and technology in altering dairying practices today.   New feeding regimens and new technologies (*including* rbST) have been developed and promoted considering current environmental concerns connected to dairying.  These concerns include the production of methane gas emissions, water pollution, and overall land use.  Not only are technologies being developed, but regulations are being passed based on these larger environmental concerns.


Small, anaerobic digester installed on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania – using methane to produce other forms of energy like electricity on the farm.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

To the students at this event, and to new vegan readers of this blog:  I think centering vegan advocacy on larger issues of climate change and ecological impact provides a different kind of opportunity; an opportunity for meaningful discussion and collaboration with farmers that animal liberation efforts alone may not be able to achieve.  For example, my dissertation looks into how “animal welfare” becomes differently defined between scientific, farming, and consumer groups.  So far, I can say confidently that welfare is a tricky subject, and what farmers think is best for their animals is often not the same for consumers.  These discussions often end up being unfair to the farmer who is asked to reevaluate their livelihood and the relationship they may have fostered with their animals.  Though animal welfare issues are certainly important to address, they tend to fall into dangerous, philosophical traps that are difficult to generalize.  And as I stated above, when trying to illustrate welfare in a visually meaningful way – connecting the feminist agenda with the vegan one – it often falls into the trap of sexualizing and thus ostracizing groups that are critical to vegan advocacy.  A shift to environmental issues also doesn’t take away from the feminist weight of vegan advocacy.  It relocates it to larger problems of capitalism, resource extraction, and technocracy that are wrapped up in ideals attached to the patriarchy.

There is much more I can say about the topic of veganism, my own feelings about the dairy industry, and dietary activism.  This is an ongoing topic for me as someone researching the history of the dairy industry.  But to those interested in advocacy, I wanted to provide a short bibliography of readings that address the important connections held between feminism, environmentalism, and veganism (call it a “starter syllabus,” if you will).   I hope my blog (in past and future posts) also helps demonstrate the complicated nature of human-cow relationships, technologies of care (including feeding), and technologies of production (rbST and artificial insemination included!).  I believe activists of all forms need to be educated on both sides of these issues to better craft arguments for and against certain practices.  Such crafting opens up opportunities for constructive conversation and, perhaps, tangible solutions to some of the things we are most worried about in relation to our nonhuman companions.


Helpful framing literature:

Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, 1980 (environmentalists need to pay attention to feminism)

Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat, 1990 (vegetarians need to pay attention to feminism)

Vadana Shiva and J. Bandyopadhyay’s “The Evolution, Structure, and Impact of the Chipko Movement” in Mountain Research and Development 6, no. 2 (1986): 133 – 142

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Studies 1, no. 2 (1972): 5–31. doi:10.2307/3177638.


On connections between vegetarianism, veganism, and feminism:

Deckha, Maneesha. “Disturbing Images: Peta and the Feminist Ethics of Animal Advocacy.” Ethics & the Environment 13, no. 2 (2008): 35–76.

Lucas, Sheri. “A Defense of the Feminist-Vegetarian Connection.” Hypatia 20, no. 1 (2005): 150–77. doi:10.1353/hyp.2005.0015.

Schiebinger, Londa. “Why Mammals Are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth-Century Natural History. (Cover Story).” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (April 1993): 382–411.

Taylor, Sunaura.  “Vegans, Freaks, and Animals: Toward a New Table Fellowship.”  American Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2013): 757 – 764 (Heads up: fantastic article!!!)

Thomas, Marion. “Are Women Naturally Devoted Mothers?: Fabre, Perrier, and Giard on Maternal Instinct in France Under the Third Republic: ARE WOMEN NATURALLY DEVOTED MOTHERS?” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 50, no. 3 (June 2014): 280–301. doi:10.1002/jhbs.21666.


Ecofeminism blogs:

https://blackngreenphd.wordpress.com/tag/ecofeminism/  (Particular emphasis on positionality)

http://caroljadams.com/about-ecofeminism/ (Its history and connections with veganism)

http://fore.yale.edu/disciplines/gender/ (More history!)

http://www.wloe.org/what-is-ecofeminism.76.0.html (Helpful for more literature networks in the field.  Not so helpful in speaking to GMOs.)