Allison van Tilborgh
Why Veganism is a Feminist Issue
I started my vegan journey when I was 16. I was in the passenger seat of a car driving with a friend to pick up my brother from school. We stopped by Target, and I was craving chocolate milk. On the shelf, I saw something I had never seen before: pea milk.
I remember scoffing, saying how crazy vegans were, yet still proceeded to purchase the milk out of curiosity. I thought it tasted strange, but what terrified me was the divine realization that milk came from cows. Like, actually, came from cows. Other vegans probably know what I’m talking about: the moment when it dawned on you.
I didn’t become fully vegan until the pandemic started (I was first dairy-free and kosher for many years and then vegetarian). Yet, I am still shocked me how many people identify themselves as feminists or environmentalists yet continue to eat meat. I suppose stranger labelings have existed much longer: Buddhists who eat meat, ‘animal lovers’ who eat meat, or farmers who claim to give their animals a ‘good life.’
Once I reached the point where I saw the connections between veganism, environmentalism, and feminism, there was no going back for me. I couldn’t unsee it. In the following article, I will sketch some of the basic connections between veganism and feminism.
Let’s start at the beginning. From a chicken, cow, or pigs’ first day they are segregated by sex and exploited based on the ‘effectiveness’ of their reproductive organs. Sexually ambiguous (or “deformed”) animals are usually killed practically on the spot. Male animals rarely grow up.
In the case of cows, male calves are murdered early because their flesh is considered more desirable (since it is lighter), and farmers would rather divert the ‘resource’ of cow’s milk to human consumption. They are restricted from growing by being trapped in tiny cages that disallow them from turning their heads and disbarred from eating grass, lest their flesh turns red.
Female cows are raised to be forcibly entered, impregnated, torn away from their young (at least 50% of the time, the young will be murdered very quickly, as stated above) before they are hooked up to machinery that drains their breast milk. Later, the cow must be impregnated again to keep up the cycle.
In other articles, I have written that male animals are valued for their dead bodies. Still, female animals are valued for their sexual activity, ability to have babies, faux performance of motherhood via breastmilk, and then also their dead bodies. In factory farming, sex differences are exacerbated. And for what? To uphold a capitalist system that thrives on the sexual slavery of the “Other” — to provide “luxuries” in a world that could not have fathomed factory farming 150 years ago. Paraphrasing Peter Singer's words in Animal Liberation, the question of factory farming is not are they deserving but can they suffer?
Factory farming does not only function in the domain of food, fashion, and other house-hold animal-derived products. In India, we see the symbol of the female cow, which has been viciously exploited to ‘produce’ milk, being equipped as a religious-nationalistic symbol for Narendra Modi’s party. The female cow body is synonymized with the life-giving motherly presence of India herself.
Mrinalini Sinha in Gender and Nation describes the female body as being ‘iconic,’ perpetuating ‘symbolic’ motifs of nationhood as feminine (2004 162). In the case of India, the female cow that shares its milk to the needy or the Hindu folk story of the earth being created through the churning of milk or even the popular story of young Krishna stealing butter all affirm Sinha’s claim that femininity in nation-building is also associated with a self-sacrificial trope. The female cow is venerated as being selfless when the female cow has no voice in the matter. The cow may be silent, but silence is not consent.
It is also necessary to recognize the larger scope of the animal rights movement. Fighting factory farms is a fight for the agency of animals and the workers who are scooped up in the dangerous, traumatic environment of factory farming. In the United States, workers in these conditions are largely undocumented immigrants with limited rights.
Yet even when it is presented as one of a few options (or the only option), factory farming positions remain to have some of the highest turnover rates of any profession. Why? There is the trauma of slitting the throats or handling dead animals' carcasses, which clearly resisted death, but there is also an extreme danger. Fingers, arms, eyes lost, with no works compensation or protection. This is what Upton Sinclair writes about in his imagining of a Chicago meat-packing plant in The Jungle, which ultimately contributed to the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (protecting consumers, not workers).
Lost Visions of Equality (2005) by Dorthy Sue Cobble charts the participation in new labor movements on the same timeline as factory farming ramps up, spreading across all domesticated animal species. She writes, “there was no equality without a transformation in the work patterns, norms, and practices of the work world itself” (36). This vision for a more fair, equitable job landscape for women has important implications for the factory farming industry, which ‘employs’ large numbers of undocumented workers: the actual work being done matters too.
And of course, factory farming contributes to an impressive carbon footprint, which is why many people might decrease their meat intake for environmental reasons. In the introduction to Reweaving the World (1990) by Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein, the authors acknowledge that “[Native Americans] embraced not only women and men of different races, but all forms of life — other animals, plants, and the living Earth itself” (75).
They further describe the danger of certain dualities such as culture and nature, reason and emotion, and then human and animal. Indeed, even the eco-feminist movement has trouble recognizing the sanctity of animal life or acknowledging that animals can truly suffer at all.
Many may recycle, buy an electric car, or boycott fast fashion, yet still return to McDonald’s, KFC, or even a local Burger joint. These industries act as the building block for at least a tenth of global greenhouse gases while simultaneously disregarding animals' lives. It is said that a cheeseburger from McDonald’s contains the shared protein from hundreds of cows in the patty alone, not to mention the milk used in the cheese. Veganism cannot be separated from ecofeminism.
What we eat is intimately connected with how we live. Food does not produce itself; it always rests on the labor of a living creature. A vegan lifestyle is not perfect, and surely that are many ‘levels’ of veganism within the community. A ‘complete’ vegan might not be a ‘complete’ environmentalist, and a ‘complete’ feminist may not be a ‘complete’ labor rights activist. Immediate perfection is impossible for any of us, but the effort to strive to do the right thing can have profound effects.
Veganism is a boycott, a protest against cruelty against animals and humans. Veganism is a call to get our bodies back and the bodies to which we have developed a graveyard. Veganism is a call to get fresh foods in low-income communities, pay women equally for equal work, and protect families' rights to stay together. Veganism is a call against war against violence against murder—veganism is the demand for inclusivity.
In short, veganism is a feminist issue.
Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash