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.)





Where’s the beef? (or, where have the food blogs gone?)

One-woman blogs are difficult to maintain.  I started this blog primarily to share some fun ideas about food and farming and as an outlet to work on my writing.  If you are a follower and have been wondering where the heck I’ve been, I’ve found different writing outlets and different spaces to share work since April.  Apologies to my WordPress!

What are these spaces?  Well, one of them has been with the Penn Program for the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) – a really wonderful scholarly collective that acts as an outlet for building public awareness about environmental topics.  I believe I’ve mentioned in former blogs that the concept of the “environment” is tricky, as most seemingly concrete words are.  But this group does an amazing job organizing conferences, lectures, and workshops as spaces for thinking about the stakes of this term as we encounter real problems that will affect our biological futures (namely things like climate change, pollution, and water source management).  I was invited to contribute two blog posts to their Fellows Blog series titled, “Agriculture, Sustainability, and the Environment: Are We Doing It Right?,” organized by PPEH Fellow Fatima Zahra.  I’m all for blog sharing and sending traffic to different websites, so here are the links and some short abstracts about my write-ups:

NatGeo cow burps

My favorite image from the “Companion Species” blog post.  Source: National Geographic, 2015.


In this post I focus on Haraway’s term “companion species” as I dive into some technoscientific solutions the food animal industry has been working on to reduce methane gas emissions.  Microbe-management makes an appearance!


Food System map from Nourish Life, 2015.  I could talk about this map, what is there and what is missing from it for days!


This essay was a follow-up to the former, thinking more about emissions and how our larger food systems (not just food animals) affect the environment.  I try to distill parts of the larger system and demonstrate that there are many different ways what we eat can affect the environment.  Local food movements and the socio-cultural stakes of small/large, slow/fast food production and processing are questioned in this overview. 

It is a lot of fun contributing to other sites and for colleagues interested in the same subjects.  The blog as a whole is fantastic, and I highly recommend following it, as well as the Twitter and Facebook of the program!  I was also invited to speak at Philly Nerd Nite about microbes and food, and gave a quick, general presentation on the topic based on one of my prior blog posts.  I got a lot of questions about cheese, as expected, but overall Michael Pollan spoiled my “big reveal.”  His Cooked series is just exploding on Netflix (in a really good way).

blog dthin

cooked show

I recommend Cooked for some interesting tid-bits about food systems and food ideologies.  A word of caution, nostalgia is pretty heavy in most of the episodes which only leads to more questions about the future of our food systems.

In addition to writing and talking in other public spaces, I’ve also been busy preparing conference presentations for the summer and applying for summer research funding.  I’m finalizing these works, which gives me more time to reflect upon them in this blog forum.  So, expect some more regular posts over the summer!  I recently received the GAPSA-Provost Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Innovation, an award that helps fund work that talks across disciplines.  I’m happy to say my work speaks across quite a few academic spaces, including veterinary medicine, agricultural sciences, history, anthropology, art history, and even business/economics.  Some of my research/travels will make up future posts in the coming months, and I will write primarily about what it is like to do interdisciplinary research and the challenges I may (psh, will!) encounter in my ethnographic and archival work.  So for those of you still in the dark about what I do and why it matters, I hope these future entries will prove to be enlightening.  Stay tuned!