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
08 March 2021
"Just Leave Me Alone": responses to Unfinished Business
A guest post on International Women's Day by Rebecca Riddleston and Georgia Olive
In December 2020 Rebecca Riddleston and Georgia Olive, Customer Service Apprentices in the British Library’s Learning team, visited the exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. Grounded in their own personal experiences as young women, here they reflect on their responses to the exhibition and some of the objects that particularly resonated with them.
During their apprenticeship, Rebecca and Georgia learnt more about the audiences we work with in the Learning team, gained new experiences, knowledge, and skills such as web editing, and provided invaluable support for a range of events and projects for school learners, teachers, families and young people, such as our National Library of Miniature Books.
Please note that this post contains some discussion of abortion and sexual violence.
I felt a particular affinity with Gloria Steinem’s statement ‘The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off’ whilst walking through the Unfinished Business exhibition. A sentiment that I not only felt in the exhibition space, but one that I have felt many times whilst navigating through life as a young woman.
This exhibition evokes pride, solidarity and anger, but the main emotion that hit me was exhaustion. As we got further and further in, the main phrase that came to mind was ‘just leave me alone’. It may not be a particularly profound sentiment, but many of the exhibition objects reminded me of just how many times I've been driven to exhaustion just by simply having to exist as a girl and woman. Why does that person care what I’m wearing? Why won’t that man leave me be? Why is it that seemingly every choice I make, is one that’s inherently based in my gender?
A few items particularly stood out to me as being exemplary of my feminine fatigue, namely the No More Page 3 t-shirt and the Consent Zine.
No More Page Three campaign t-shirt, worn by Dr Caroline Lucas MP at a debate on media sexism in 2013. © Parliamentary Recording Unit
Caro Berry of Pretty in Punk, ‘Towards a Pro-Consent Revolution’. London, 2013. © Caro Berry
I remember my first time seeing a Page 3 spread was when I was barely pubescent and I found some copies of The Sun in my friend’s bathroom. It was one of those things that I knew existed but had been so normalised that I hadn’t really processed how it affected me and the way I perceived myself. As puberty started I knew that I was already being seen as a sexual object, but at that point I had absolutely no idea what the male gaze was.
If only I’d been to an exhibition like this at that age, I would’ve spotted the Laura Mulvey quote nestled in the corner that reads, ‘in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’. Maybe then I would’ve been able to look at the women on Page 3 (who couldn’t look back at me) and not project my own internalised male gaze through them and back onto myself, but instead thought: why the hell am I looking at softporn whilst on the loo?
Laura Mulvey quotation as it appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition, edited by Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly.
Initially I found myself frustrated and very much overwhelmed, looking up and around at all of the injustices on display in the Unfinished Business exhibition. Questions spun around in my head, many reoccurring ones such as ‘why?’ and ‘wait, what?’. In the section on ‘Autonomy’, I spotted a question that I thought at first glance seemed easily answered. ‘Do you have control over your body?’ was written on a panel at the beginning of the exhibition.
Panel introducing the sub-section on 'Autonomy' in the 'Body' section of the exhibition.
I stood and thought about this for a moment, as if someone was interrogating me directly. Yes, I have control over my body. I decide when I am hungry, so I eat. I can wave my hand, and I can close my eyes. It is such a simple question, yet it runs deep enough to send me spiralling. The answer became abundantly clear to me as I explored the exhibition in more detail.
Being in this environment brought up a lot of personal experiences for me. It made me feel an overwhelming resentment toward the men who feel it is ok to comment on a woman’s body, or even touch it, unprompted. Instances like this made me very aware of the lack of control I have over my own body, from the way it is perceived to the way it is treated. The one sure answer I had to this question was that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.
In the exhibition I was inspired to read about the work a wonderful charity called BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) has done to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. The abortion debate is a topic that never fails to get me worked up. It is an opinion that I’ve never been able to comprehend properly, that a woman should not get a say in whether or not she should grow a human inside her stomach, and give birth to it.
This constriction of women’s rights to their own anatomy of course extends further into their private lives. I was utterly perplexed to find out that in the UK marital rape was not even an established crime until 1991, just 30 years ago. It is unfathomable to me, that many of the people I work with, and a lot of my family, grew up in a society where a man could rape his own wife and face no consequences. To me, that sounds medieval.
Banner on loan from Southall Black Sisters: ‘Women march against male violence’, designed by Shakila Taranum Maan, 1986
While this information made me feel shocked and completely disgusted, it oddly gave me a sense of optimism for the strides that could be made in my own lifetime. Surrounded by the work of activists, I could see how change happens. No, I do not have complete control over my own body. But I am working on it, and I will get there.
Find out more about apprenticeships at the British Library
Our public spaces are closed for the moment. In the meantime, you can visit our website Women’s Rights which highlights the powerful and vital stories of feminist activism and agitation in the UK. The website invites visitors to explore the complex history of women’s rights through the voices of our contributors, and through the lens of the rich collections – from photographs, printed material, audio recordings and videos – held at the British Library. You can also find themed podcasts, recordings of events related to the exhibition, and recordings of events held by partner libraries in the Living Knowledge Network.
A selection of placards displayed in the Unfinished Business exhibition.
30 October 2020
New Spare Rib map resource: putting women's activism on the map
Written by The Business of Women's Words team.
Think 1970s UK feminism was a purely metropolitan affair? Ever wondered whether the Women’s Liberation Movement stretched beyond the boundaries of big cities? The new digital map resource at the British Library might have some surprising answers.
Spare Rib cover, Nov 1976, Issue 52 © Michael Ann Mullen
The Spare Rib map is the first digital resource to visualise the networks and activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) across the UK and Ireland. It has been created by the Business of Women’s Words project, a research partnership between the British Library and the Universities of Sussex and Cambridge funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Its data is drawn from Spare Rib (1972-1993), the iconic feminist magazine digitised by the British Library. Based on a sample (around 30%) of Spare Rib’s listings, adverts and letters pages, the map represents a slice of the intense feminist activity that flowered during the magazine’s twenty-year run. What it shows is that the WLM was a truly national movement, with datapoints ranging from the Western Isles of Scotland to Leiston in Suffolk, and from Derry in Ireland to Falmouth in Cornwall.
Snapshot of the Spare Rib map from 1983
The map sheds new light on the structure of the WLM and illuminates its regional centres and hubs, as well as a wider web of more isolated feminist activity. Lancaster, for example, was a regional hub that hosted a number of feminist publications, women’s counselling services, a lesbian helpline and took part in the Feminist Book Fortnight; and Bangor in Wales offered an array of feminist groups, businesses selling feminist postcards, jewellery and shoes, and alternative communal accommodation. The map’s colour-coded categories and symbols visualise the sheer diversity of activities and goods generated by the WLM, from political demonstrations to carpentry workshops to co-operatively produced clothing.
Although the WLM is often thought of as outside capitalist transactions of buying and selling, the map makes clear that Spare Rib, and the movement more broadly, was a site of exchange – personal, ideological, but also commercial. Businesses, from dating agencies to therapists to bookshops and publishers, were a key part of the feminist community and helped to advance the reach of the movement. The extraordinary number of women-only or lesbian B&Bs advertised in Spare Rib in the 1980s, for instance, demonstrate how women-run businesses extended the movement into some of the most rural parts of the UK, from the Lake District to the Isle of Arran, and from Piltown in Ireland to Yelverton in Devon. By drawing on letters as well as listings and adverts sent into Spare Rib, the map visualises not only the nationwide distribution of feminist events, commodities and services, but a network of (often critical) consumers and activists. It charts change over time, revealing the changing priorities and infrastructure of the movement, from consciousness raising groups to women’s centres, feminist businesses and women’s studies courses.
Fully searchable by category, year, keyword and geographical location, the Spare Rib map is a rich interactive resource which opens up new avenues of research for historians of UK and Irish women’s movements across two decades of intense activism.
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