22 May 2023
Animals and feminism: readings on the intersection of oppression
From 7 March – 9 July 2023, the British Library Treasures Gallery has a small exhibition ‘From the Margins to the Mainstream: Animal Rights in Britain’, which follows the progression of animal rights from the enlightenment period until the present day.
To complement the exhibition, guest writer Kim Stallwood, a highly respected international figure in animal welfare, has written a series of four blog posts of his own thoughts and opinions on key themes connected with animal rights in Britain and around the world. The articles are based on his own reading and research and aim to highlight some of the books held by the British Library that have helped shape his view. In 2022, the Library acquired the Kim Stallwood Archive, and a few of the items from the collection are included in the exhibition.
The four posts in this series focus on ‘Animals and the Climate Emergency’, ‘Animals and Feminism’, ‘Animals and the Law’, ‘Animals and Social Justice’.
Guest writer Kim Stallwood writes about books held at the British Library that have helped shape his understanding of the link between feminism and animal rights:
Copyright: Paul Knight, Image Courtesy of Kim Stallwood (2023)
“Becoming vegan in 1976 began a lifetime’s commitment to living with care, compassion, and a commitment to justice for all, regardless of species. My anger at the animal cruelty that I witnessed around me gave me the confidence to speak out. But, my lack of understanding meant my arguments were often ill-informed and undeveloped. I continue to learn how to express myself in ways that withstand challenges. One way I learn is by turning to books and the authors who write them. These people and the words they write figure prominently in my life. They continue to clarify my thoughts, unravel my feelings, and help me refresh what I put on my dinner plate. Philosophers, academics, artists, novelists, feminists, and even cookbook authors influence how I live and the compassionate world I seek to make.
Carol J. Adams is one of those figures who profoundly informs my understanding of social justice and my practice as a social justice advocate. Perhaps more than any other thinker and writer, she links feminism with veganism, uniting them in a progressive agenda regardless of how we see ourselves as separated by gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or species. As author and co-author, editor and co-editor, she has written an impressive library of books and articles (and talks) about feminism, ecofeminism, violence against women, veganism, and spirituality. She established her reputation in 1990 with her groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Critical Theory, Carol J. Adams, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, shelfmark YKL.2017.a.1903). Its provocative title signals it is neither humorous nor about cooking but as its subtitle indicates a feminist-vegetarian critical theory.
Front cover of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams. Credit: The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Critical Theory, Carol J. Adams, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, shelfmark YKL.2017.a.1903
Dominant forces build and maintain the intersection of oppressions, Carol explains. This is the spaghetti junction of patriarchy, sexism, racism, capitalism, speciesism, and more. The intersection of oppressions maintains its power and control, preventing us from establishing a caring society for all. Dominant forces rely upon their ability to encourage division and manufacture competition where neither needs not exist. ‘Dominance functions best in a culture of disconnections and fragmentation,’ Carol writes. ‘Feminism recognizes connections.’
Human dominance over animals is nothing but disconnections and fragmentation. Conditioning stops us from seeing a burger as the charred remains of dead animals. Animals are here what Adams refers to the ‘absent referent’. ‘Once the existence of meat,’ Adams explains, ‘is disconnected from the existence of an animal who was killed to become that “meat,” meat becomes unanchored by its original referent (the animal), becoming instead a free-floating image, used often to reflect women’s status as well as animals’.
Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR) Semi-annual Publication, 1994-1995, Add MS 89458/4/91. Credit: Feminists for Animal Rights
The cover of The Sexual Politics of Meat includes a visual example of the absent referent. It reproduces a coloured drawing of a naked woman wearing a cowboy hat. ‘What’s your cut?’ she asks. Her body is drawn into cuts of meat to indicate where the rump, loin, rib, and chuck are. The naked woman and the dead animal become synthesised into one. Both are exploited. ‘The woman, animalized; the animal, sexualized,’ Adams writes. ‘That’s the sexual politics of meat.’ After the book’s publication, readers sent Carol many more images, which she collected and incorporated into her presentations. These included sexualised women’s bodies with chicken heads to advertise a restaurant and a woman with a pig’s head laying on her back with her stockinged legs in the air to advertise a pig roast. After collecting these images together Carol published The Pornography of Meat (The Pornography of Meat, Carol J. Adams, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, shelfmark YC.2022.a.315) first in 2003, then revised and expanded in 2020 with more than 300 sexist and speciesist images.
Front cover of The Pornography of Meat by Carol J. Adams. Credit: The Pornography of Meat, Carol J. Adams, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, shelfmark YC.2022.a.315
After reading Carol’s books, I saw images of animalized women and sexualized animals hitherto invisible to me. Similarly, the greater my care for animals became the more I saw their exploitation everywhere. I also became sensitised to the sexualised way some women portray themselves in some animal rights media stunts and protests. I now see these events as sexist. Their motivation may be to bring attention to animal abuse but they also, consciously or otherwise, perpetuate the exploitation of women. There is no competition between women and animals. I want both to be the focus of social justice. For social justice advocacy to be effective, actions for the freedom of some cannot accidentally or wilfully perpetuate the oppression of others. Meat, for example, should not be served at fundraising events like barbecues for women’s shelters or animal sanctuaries. Social justice demands open hearts and open minds to all those who are oppressed. If you become the focus of any criticism consider it as an opportunity to reflect and ask yourself - am I perpetuating the intersection of oppression or weaving the web of care?
Kim Stallwood’s draft paper exploring the influence of eco-feminism on his animal rights practice for the Marti Kheel Conference, 2012, Add MS 89458/4/91. Credit: CC-BY Kim Stallwood
But, remember this about social justice: The journey is more important than the destination. Perfection is not a requirement for every step along the way. Of course, as a longstanding vegan, I want everyone to be like me. But is it enough? Living as a vegan is more than just about the food we eat, or the clothes we wear. There is more to being vegan than a nonviolent material lifestyle. It is also about the ideas we have, the words we say, the emotions we feel, and the way we behave. How we speak and behave with others. ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’ as Mahatma Gandhi is often credited with saying. The practice of social justice challenges dominant forces and reveals the depths and intricacies that sustain their oppression. Not all of them are always visible. They hide, sometimes presenting themselves as an uncomfortable benevolence. Think of the call to look after you and your family before helping strangers.
Yes, we live in a complicated and continuously changing world. We must be vigilant, ready, and unafraid to confront dominant forces whenever they appear. Otherwise, the intersection of oppressions prevails. The web of care stays out of reach.
Read books. Change the world.”
CC-BY Kim Stallwood is a vegan animal rights author and independent scholar. The British Library acquired the Kim Stallwood Archive in 2020. He is a consultant with Tier im Recht, the Swiss-based animal law organisation, and on the board of directors of the US-based Culture and Animals Foundation.
Adams, C. (2020) The Pornography of Meat, London: Bloomsbury, shelfmark YC.2022.a.315
Adams, C. (2015) The Sexual Politics of Meat: a feminist-vegetarian critical theory, London: Bloomsbury, shelfmark YKL.2017.a.1903