Three recent articles highlight the difference of opinion within the animal rights movement on the role of women. Before considering them, it’s important to note that the animal rights movement, historically and contemporarily, has always had a strong presence of women both as leaders or founders of national and local organizations as well as grassroots activists and volunteers whose commitment and labour were and are exemplary. That doesn’t mean to say that men did and do not play a significant role because they do. But society has yet to shake off its persistent and pernicious chains of patriarchy and in these circumstances the role of women is even more significant. Further, it cannot but be noticed that most of the commercial exploitation of animals is done by men. Generally, the Grumpy Vegan believes women more than men feel compassion toward animals and put these sentiments into action.
Taking these articles in chronological order, the first was “More girls and women take up vegan banner” by Susan Reimer and was published in the Baltimore Sun on March 26, 2008. She wrote
Get a look at the new face of veganism.
The mousy hippie chick who couldn’t imagine eating a brown-eyed baby cow any more than she could imagine eating the family pet has grown up.
She’s a sexy, sassy babe with a smart-aleck attitude about the food choices you are making.
Fashion has met food, and the work of a couple of escapees from the world of modeling has put veganism on the runway, creating a perceptible bump in the fastest-growing food trend among girls and young women.
Reimer interviews three female vegans in their mid-twenties. She writes how veganism empowered them to make choices for themselves. One of the interviewees says,
Certainly girls are thinking about moral and ethical issues and what is fair. But it also is about control. The idea that you know who you are and you are in control of things can be very seductive, especially for girls in the ‘tween’ years who are trying to control that feeling of powerlessness.
Reimer goes on to describe how
All three told of similar journeys – realizing at a young age where all that meat came from; tentative but supportive parents; some harassment from schoolmates while growing up; an unwillingness to get in somebody else’s face about what they eat; and the freedom and general ease with which they have been able to maintain a vegan diet as young adults.
The next article, “The Carrot Some Vegans Deplore” by Kara Jesella and was in The New York Times on March 27, 2008. In contrast to the first article describing how the women were empowered by veganism, this article positions veganism on equal terms with society’s patriarchal attitudes toward women in that Portland, OR has the first vegan strip club in the nation.
Two things that you can find a lot of in Portland, Ore., are vegans and strip clubs. Johnny Diablo decided to open a business to combine both. At his Casa Diablo Gentlemen’s Club, soy protein replaces beef in the tacos and chimichangas; the dancers wear pleather, not leather. Many are vegans or vegetarians themselves.
[The article later announces that Diablo has put the club up for sale.] In contrast to the first article that framed veganism as an empowerment tool for women, Jesella discusses the pro and con arguments to women and female vegans and vegetarians using their bodies either in strip clubs or in protesting against animal cruelty.
The issue of exploiting women for social justice causes is explored further by Julie Bindel in Who is this supposed to help?. She writes
Using women’s bodies to promote a good cause was popularised by the annual Miss World competition back in the 60s, and that event still revolves around bikini-clad women talking about their ambitions for world peace and their hopes of spending their winning year supporting charitable causes. Feminist campaigners once staged huge protests against Miss World – famously flour-bombing the event in 1970 – and they continue to speak up regularly against the worst examples of misogynist imagery used in charity campaigns. Nonetheless, this exploitation of women’s bodies seems to have become widely accepted. Images that would provoke a serious backlash if they were used to promote a commercial interest are seemingly legitimised through their association with charity, defended with the simple argument that women have chosen to pose for them. As a result, they have proliferated.
She goes onto castigate PETA as the “worst offender.”
In Peta’s world, it seems that it is perfectly acceptable to reduce women to the status of animals, or meat: one Peta image shows a woman being clubbed “to death” by a man; another shows a woman wrapped in cling film to resemble cuts of meat in a supermarket. Perhaps the most egregious example of Peta’s work occurred in London on Mother’s Day this year, when it staged an event that was ostensibly to raise awareness about farrowing-crate confinement, a technique used in factory farming, in which sows are squeezed into narrow metal stalls barely larger than their own bodies. A heavily pregnant member of Peta’s staff lent her body to the cause – naked except for a pair of pink underpants – by kneeling on all fours in a metal cage. Another pregnant Peta worker gave out leaflets to passersby, with the words, “Unhappy Mother’s Day for Pigs. Go Vegetarian”. The image was disturbingly reminiscent of some of the nastier pornography I have seen.
Of interest to the Grumpy Vegan is how the focus of the Baltimore Sun article was on how veganism empowered the lives of the women interviewed. Whereas the focus of the other two articles was more on how some vegan women and other women were choosing to use their bodies to raise funds for charity or protest against social injustice. Of course, it is argued that the naked protests have an empowering effect upon the women who choose to do them. Nevertheless, these protests, by their very nature, have a momentary impact at best and a been-there-seen-that effect in the long run. Clearly, there are important issues to women (and men) in how women choose to protest. And, yes, the Grumpy Vegan realizes that choice is not always a free choice. But I can’t help but think that what is going to have the greatest, long-term impact is the notion that a vegan lifestyle is empowering. It instils in one a sense of self-worth that one is trying to make a significant difference in a world in which celebrity and materialism is frequently given more credence than what is really important in the world. Call me a prude. I’m nothing but. Call me a kill-joy. I’m nothing but. Call me a snob. Ok. That’s debatable. But I can’t help but think that in the long run vegan empowerment is more important than naked vegan pride.