Recently I had the chance to interview Carol J. Adams, a published author and well-respected name in the field of animal advocacy. Here is our interview, conducted via e-mail:
JM. You are a feminist vegetarian, and you have made your name largely from writing about the connections between feminism and vegetarianism. What does that mean to you, and where do you see the connections?
CJA. Oh my. Thanks for asking that question! (Imagine both a smile and grimace in that response because it’s actually not an easy question to answer.)
First, let me clarify something, in the field of animal rights activism and philosophy, feminism, and vegetarian/veganism activism I have made my name by writing about these connections. But I have also worked for the past 35 years in the area of domestic violence, written a book for ministers about working with victims and perpetrators of battering, co-edited a huge anthology on the theological and pastoral issues that are raised by sexual and domestic violence and written a training manual on the subject. So in another area, my vegan-feminism is not known at all. And at times, this activism (my feminist-vegan activism) has caused me to be disinvited from working with certain denominations or churches because it made me “suspect” in some ways.
I guess it is important for me to clarify this because my writing on this or any other subject is deeply imbedded within activism against violence.
So you ask, what do the connections between feminism and vegetarianism mean to me? It means that I am radically informed by an awareness of the oppressive attitudes that structure our world and try to resist them in my life and through my writings and my activism. It means trying to do the least harm possible and in a sense, challenging the “most” harms—violence against disenfranchised people, the other animals, and the Earth. It also means rejoicing in being able to live a life defined both through resistance and affirmation: Resistance to the dominant culture and affirmation through making connections with others and seeing that we are changing some things. In addition, each day I reaffirm my decisions through my vegan meals. It means that I believe that feminism is incomplete without an analysis of and resistance to what is happening to other animals. Or said more affirmatively, as Josephine Donovan and I write in the introduction to Animals and Women: “We believe that feminism is a transformative philosophy that embraces the amelioration of life on earth for all life-forms, for all natural entities.” This also means that any understanding of veganism and animal activism is incomplete without a feminist perspective.
I recently heard from an ex-vegan feminist, who wrote to me and said something like, I know your life has been devoted to veganism. And I thought, she doesn’t know me then. Certainly, I am committed to veganism, but I don’t think veganism, on its own, is going to ameliorate all the problems of violence that exist in this world.
My work began with a revelation, “Wow, there’s a connection between feminism and vegetarianism, and between meat eating and patriarchal attitudes.” I thought, naively, that once I pointed this out, in as articulate and sophisticated way as I could (which ended up taking 15 years), that people, feminists especially, would say, “Wow. I get it.” But sadly, it is hard to reach feminists who don’t want to give up eating animals. As I quote in The Sexual Politics of Meat: “It is hard to speak to a stomach that has no ears.” Many people think with their stomachs, and it doesn’t get feminist-vegan theory very far when that happens!
Where do I see the connections?
I see them everywhere! Sometimes I wish I could turn my brain off, because I’ll be relaxing, and suddenly I see a billboard or an advertisement, or read an article, and my brain starts to interact with it. But, to help people who haven’t read The Sexual Politics of Meat, I have created a handout that accompanies my showing of The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show. There are basic points that I try to make:
1. Meat-eating is associated with virility, masculinity. Meat eating societies gain male identification by their choice of food. From Hummer and Burger King ads, to restaurant menus, especially around Father’s Day, the assumption is that men should meat. Now with the success of veganism, you can see in the advertisements a subtle regulatory role, trying to bring disobedient men (who have become vegan) back into the fold. Of course, this association is not very healthy for men. It’s an oppressive system of signs and symbols.
2. Animals are the absent referents in the consumption of meat. Behind every meat meal is the death of the animal whose place the “meat” take. The function of the absent referent is to allow for the moral abandonment of a being.
3. A process of objectification/fragmentation/consumption connects women and animals in a patriarchal culture (they become overlapping absent referents). The visual “joke” that substitutes one fragmented object for another can be found throughout our culture.
4. Feminist-vegan theory is ecofeminist, that is, environmental issues can’t be understood without a feminist perspective and feminist issues can’t be understood without an environmental perspective. I place animals into the middle of this insight. As an ecofeminist theory, it recognizes the environmental costs of animalizing protein. Meat production contributes to water pollution, climate change, habit fragmentation, and desertification of arable land. All protein is from plants; animalized protein requires that a living animal process the protein and then be killed.
5. Female animals are the absent referents in meat eating and in the consumption of dairy and eggs. There would be no meat eating if female animals weren’t constantly made pregnant. Female animals are forced to produce feminized protein, (plant protein produced through the abuse of the reproductive cycle of female animals, i.e., dairy and eggs).
6. Women are animalized and animals are sexualized and feminized.
7. Anthropornography naturalizes sexual trafficking in and use of women.
8. In it’s analysis, the sexual politics of meat intersects with “carnophallogocentrism.” French theorist Derrida coined the term in an attempt to name the primary social, linguistic, and material practices that go into becoming a subject within the West. Derrida was showing how explicit carnivorism lies at the heart of classical notions of subjectivity, especially male subjectivity.
9. I urge resistance to the ideological construction of living objects through adopting a feminist ethics of care. Feminist ethics of care is a political ethic: it understands that ideology influences how we choose whom to care about. Because once your restore the absent referent then the question becomes, what is our relationship with this once absent, but now present, being?
(copyright © 2011, Carol J. Adams)
JM. In some of your work I believe you have focused on the oppression of female farm animals specifically, for how their reproductive systems – eggs, pregnancy, offspring, lactation – are hijacked by humans for food and profit. Do you find that this has an effect on feminists who hadn’t/ haven’t yet drawn connections with the food they eat? Do you think it’s fair to emphasize the suffering of female animals, when male animals are also manipulated, discarded or destroyed (as “surplus” since they do not produce eggs or milk), and suffer confinement and early death just as females do? Could we not say that animals need, not feminism, but total liberation?
CJA. Let’s see if I can take these questions apart and get to the heart of the issue.
First, the question, Do you find that this has an effect on feminists who hadn’t/ haven’t yet drawn connections with the food they eat? I think it sometimes does because issues of lactation, reproductive freedom, reproductive slavery, and the connections between how women experience these issues and how the other animals do are important gateways, in a sense, to thinking about what female oppression consists of. For instance, what’s the relationship between women only nursing for say 3 to 6 months [I was recently told that was the average time], instead of for two to three years, as La Leche League would teach, and the pushing of milk from cows for children (and adults)? What does it mean that reproductive technology was developed on other than human females? Why is that the other than human bond between mother and her offspring is so vitiated, at the same time that we have a huge right wing focus on the aborting woman? I think these issues are deeply connected.
And while in one essay, I say, sympathy, empathy for lactating animals may be something a breast-feeding woman might feel (for instance, knowing what it feels to have breasts engorged with milk) I also don’t want simply to make an ad feminem argument that assumes, “you, women, should care because of this, children stolen from their mothers, female animals giving birth, etc.” That way leads to essentialism and I am not comfortable with that.
The more important point that I believe should be made is that because they are female, their experiences are more invisible, or female animals are not “worth” our concern, or people believe it is better to be alive than dead, and cows and chickens, well, at least they are alive. If all animals disappear, female animals disappear in a specific way. I wanted to make that clear.
Meat eaters say there would be no animals if we didn’t eat them. No, there would be no animals if we didn’t keep making female animals pregnant. Because the mother disappears, meat eaters congratulate themselves for their beneficence in instantiating animals’ lives. (Which is such a huge reversal since they are causing animals’ deaths!).
In fact, many advocates suggest that the first thing people should stop eating is dairy and eggs.
You ask, Do you think it’s fair to emphasize the suffering of female animals, when male animals are also manipulated, discarded or destroyed (as “surplus” since they do not produce eggs or milk), and suffer confinement and early death just as females do?
Actually, I am not emphasizing the suffering of one kind of domesticated animal over another. In fact, I am often criticized for the reverse, not paying enough attention to the female animals. I don’t think it’s an either/or issue. One of the goals of feminist-vegan theory is to show the unique perspective that arises when we watch what is happening based on sexual and gender assumptions. That is one reason that in The Sexual Politics of Meat I coined the term “feminized protein” and brought forward from the nineteenth century, “animalized protein.” These terms remind us that all protein is plant protein, some is eaten directly, but much is pushed through animals and in eating meat, dairy and eggs we are eating plant protein.
Maybe it would help to move the focus to an idea I got first from Cary Wolfe. Cary proposes that within Western tradition we need to think in terms, not of human/animal, but in terms of humanized human, animalized human, humanized animal, animalized animal. In other words, focusing on a dualism alone is limited. Cary sees the humanized human and the animalized animals as ideological fictions, with the hybrid designations doing much of the heavy lifting in illuminating humanist presumptions, I see his grid – when nudged — functioning to illuminate the sexual politics of meat. The humanized human in western culture, has often been white male, the one who had the right to vote and own property. Casting individuals as animalized humans is usually influenced by race, sex, and class. Animalizing discourse is a powerful tool in oppression, and as I discuss in my article on “The War on Compassion” in The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics: A Reader, is used in genocidal situations. Animalizing discourse, also, often substitutes for an analysis of why violence against women happens; that is, rapists and batterers or others who commit acts of violence are often animalized (called “brutes,” “animals,” etc.), when in fact they are acting like humans, in that their violence is deliberate and often planned.
As for the humanized animal: the humanized animal often occurs as a sort of animal exceptionalism. In Cary Wolfe’s example, the humanized animal is the “pet,” the animal who can be saved in Silence of the Lambs, since clearly the lambs are not. The great Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer reported that when she was growing up, the dog who belonged to the farmer for whom Hamer worked, had an indoor bathroom, whereas Hamer lived in a small house with no working indoor toilet. Hamer was treated like an animalized human; the dog, a humanized animal. The traditional arguments of animal liberation and animal rights that show how the animals are like us, can feel, suffer, etc., is also an attempt to humanize the animal.
I think it is important to highlight the underlying gender categories that are functioning and tinker with Wolfe’s grid, by adding the categories of animalized women (when women are depicted as animals and animal-like, or as meat) and feminized animals.
Humanized animal Animalized human
So, let’s consider this: the animalized animal in my opinion, is the animal who is granted no individuality, like animals in factory farms. They are objects producing protein. But the feminized animal is both producing protein as a living being and will become animalized protein when she is killed. The female body is expoited two ways, first for its reproductive capacity and then when she has been exhausted and can no longer reproduce, merely for its productive capacity, that is, her production of her own body to be meat. Her oppression is in her living and in her dying. The male chick suffocated within 24 hours of birth is an animalized animal. His death is horrible. I object to it. The veal calf removed from his mother, fed a limited diet and killed for his white flesh, that is horrible. I object to that. But the feminized animal is the one structurally in the lowest position, as she is kept captive for several years. And I think it is also important for feminists to realize that some attitudes and pejorative terms arise from this specific exploitations of the female body and contribute to women being animalized.
So in your question, Could we not say that animals need, not feminism, but total liberation? I would say, why? Why would we want to say this isn’t what feminism is about? After all, it’s patriarchal attitudes that say the ends justify the means, that establishes legitimate forms of violence, that valorizes maleness over femaleness, that encourages a subjectivity that is self-centered and believes “his” needs trump the interests of others hierarchically less than “him.” (It can be a “her” who believes this.) The liberation they need is liberation from the constitution or construction of what Derrida called the carnophallogocentric subject, who believes certain things, including the need to eat meat. We feminist-vegans are trying to change the notion of the Western subject, not as someone whose subjectification occurs through the objectification of others.
I notice that the animal liberation movement, when it lacks a feminist perspective, fails to develop a critique that truly cuts at the roots of oppression. In mainstream discourses about “animal rights,” we find a similar (and similarly unexamined) assumption operating among activists and theorists: viz., that gender and sexuality have no bearing on the problem of speciesism as such. While taking radical positions against human domination of other species, many animal activists and theorists adopt an oddly liberal view when it comes to questions of gender. The domination of women by men, and the domination of animals by human beings, are not only kept in separate accounts–they are seen as having nothing to do with one another. This lack of insight into the interconnections between speciesism and sexism, I want to suggest, seriously compromises the animal movement. The fetish of a disembodied and abstract Reason in our society effectively obscures real structures of inequality and violence, by keeping the actual experiences of women and animals at arm’s length. Just as women experience the social reality of domination made into sex through rape, incest, pornography, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, and captivity in the home, animals experience the material reality of human oppression through a patriarchal matrix that renders them into objects of manipulation, scientific torture, mass annihilation, and consumption.
Finally, in The Sexual Politics of Meat, I argue that all animals, male and female become symbolically female through meat eating. So, of course, all animals are effectively symbolically feminized, the male chicks thrown out when they are one-day old, the veal calves, unable to reproduce, the current drive to have big turkey breasts, very salaciously referred to in ads, causes all turkeys, male and female to be unable to hold their bodies up or to walk.
All of the forms of production of animalized protein violates a feminist-vegan ethic. I think one reason it is hard to see ANY animals’ fate in meat production (and dairy and eggs) is because of their figuration as female and femaleness is less valued.
JM. In interview, you mentioned that you dislike the saying, “a feminist is one who holds the radical belief that a woman is a human,” asserting that ‘human’ is too narrowing a concept. Then, in your “Anthropomorphism” essay, you note how the white, male, affluent, able, heterosexual body is given humanity, privilege and power over other bodies that don’t resemble it, whether animal or human. I wonder what you are envisioning beyond the category of “human” and the “anthropomorphized body”, that makes you criticize these concepts/constructs?
CJA. That goes back to Cary’s insight into the “humanized human.” Generally, the radical belief that a woman is a human is that she is like a “humanized human” who is conceptualized as male, rational, reasonable, autonomous. The Enlightenment notion of the subject, this white, male, affluent, able, heterosexual body, is the humanized human. Humanized in a certain way, that’s the other aspect of Derrida’s neologism “carnophallogocentrism”—a subject who is phallo-centric (which I interpret as identifying with male values and male systems), and logocentric, emphasizing that this person values words, is a speaking subject, as it were. But that is limited conception of the “human.” I envision that we grow and gain knowledge and express ourselves through relationships, and I really wonder about the efficacy of the concept human as we decenter the human.
I think human has been continually defined in opposition to nonhuman. As long as the definition of human exists through negation (human is this, animal is not this; human is not that, animal is that — though what is defined as human or animal changes), the inscription of “human” upon something, or the movement to be seen as “human” (i.e., “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human”) – all of this accepts that there is something fixed about humanness which we can establish “humans” possess, and importantly, that others do not possess. Over the years, many feminists have perceived that the equation of women with animals was a way to dehumanize women. Their response was to say, “We are a part of the human species too. We are rational, thinking beings just like men.” So, they were trying to humanize women, and stop their animalization. Also, in terms of the kind of antiracist progressive feminism we all aspire to, there is a worry that we lessen human victims if we argue for animals.
So one feminist response to the historical alignment of women and animals is to sever the woman‑animal identification, declaring instead that women are intellects and have rational minds‑‑like men (those truly humanized humans) and unlike animals (i.e. Animalized animals). Perhaps this response was a necessary phase in the transformation of cultural ideology about women.
JM. As for human bodies, to find oneself outside of the category of ‘anthropomorphic’ white male is to be at the least displaced, unrecognized, not validated; at the worst to be oppressed, forced into poverty and threatened with violence and exploitation. I see in your more recent writing that you are taking care to note the experiences not only of women and animals, but of those who are differently abled, non-white, Intersex and transgender. It is interesting to see a theorist who is able to evolve and respond to challenges, and I wonder if you’d like to talk a bit about that evolution.
CJA. I believe that this is tied to my roots in activism; that oppression is something that needs to be challenged, that it requires solidarity, and that consciousness isn’t something fixed, it is continually at work. Personally, I am a very curious person and an omnivorous reader. Also, in the 1980s, as I was trying to write The Sexual Politics of Meat, I was very involved at the grassroots level in fighting racism in housing. I write about that in an article called, “What Came Before the Sexual Politics of Meat.” Critiquing my own work, and being aware of where the faultlines exist in activism and theory is very important. Theory is never fixed, or shouldn’t be. That is why I talk about “engaged theory” in The Sexual Politics of Meat—it has a sense of accountability to real beings, living complex lives that don’t adhere to cultural stereotypes. If you had watched The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show in 2000 and then in 2011 you would see that some of the issues are presented in the same way and some are presented very differently. I like engaging with other theories that are deconstructing dominance, and because I believe all oppressions are linked, I can’t have the luxury of not updating or interrogating what I am saying. I am always shocked when I go to animal rights presentations and see male animal philosophers basically saying the same thing as ten years ago and not being held accountable for doing so.
JM. Can you describe what sort of positive vision you hold on to that helps guide your activism and your theory?
CJA. Take care: Do the least harm possible, use your skills to critique and change the world, do your activism because it is important to you to do it, don’t measure success by the outside world’s acceptance or rejection of your work, find time to enjoy the beauty of the world, be aware of bitterness, don’t assume, affirm ways you are connected, widen your circle so that it includes other than humans, don’t believe that words are always necessary, be kind, choose gentleness whenever possible, anger is sometimes the appropriate response and sometimes isn’t, watch out for being exhausted by constant exposure to traumatic events, take care.
JM. What are the most interesting alliances you have built over the years and where do you find community?
CJA. Gosh, there have been so many alliances over the years! Working with African-American activists in western New York was an intensely important experience; anti-pornography activists were some of my first readers when The Sexual Politics of Meat came out in 1990; I’ve been involved in pro-abortion activism since before Roe v. Wade. Then, I got to know other feminist-vegans like Marti Kheel, Josephine Donovan, Lori Gruen, pattrice jones, Greta Gaard, Zoe Weil, and that was downright thrilling. But by the time I met them I had finished writing The Sexual Politics of Meat.
I’m an introvert, so writing Sexual Politics of Meat occurred in a very private setting. I was informed by my activism, especially my grassroots, antiracist, anti domestic violence, and pro-abortion activism, but I didn’t bring my writing into those settings; I didn’t really discuss it with those activists.
My family is community, close friends here in Dallas are community, the vegan-feminist world around the world is community, and I love the facebook/twitter community that has widened with whom I can chat on a regular basis.