Of Breeders, MOOs and Overpopulation: Eugenics in the Animal Rights Movement

Trigger Warning: Post contains potentially upsetting discussion of eugenics, forced sterilization and racially insensitive commentary from the white-centric Nonhuman Animal rights community. Also references sexist, classist, and ableist positions that are responsible for considerable structural harm to vulnerable demographics.
Large crowd of people

By: Dr. C. Michele Martindill

Stories about overpopulation appear so often in the news and op-ed essays they are barely gets a second glance. Overpopulation is blamed for all the ills of the social world, everything from obvious social problems such as poverty and hunger to less known concerns such as climate change and deforestation of the planet. Rarely is the concept of overpopulation questioned or defined beyond citing the overall population of planet earth or particular nation states. It is easy enough to find the figures—earth now has an estimated population of 7,318,275,998 as of this writing (Current World Population, 2015) and the United States has an estimated population of 324,907,247. Whenever news stories question how to dispose of the vast amounts of garbage generated by such numbers or to address an environmental hazard such as carbon emissions the first thought is to reduce the population that is destroying the planet. Sociologist David L. Altheide, author of Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis (2002), argues that such stories are morality plays that unfold in “news reports, reality TV shows,…and documentaries,…it is the world of predators and prey, criminals and citizens,…Stories tend to be told from the perspective (voice) of the victim or criminal justice agents; seldom do we see or hear the accused outside of a prescribed role, for example, in handcuffs (193).” In many respects overpopulation is a morality play, pitting the dominant elite white culture against Persons of Color, women and anyone living in poverty, those who are handcuffed.

Vegans are divided in their response to overpopulation stories, but they seem to agree something must be done to save the planet and the lives of animals. Some vegans are vocal in their belief that if the human population was reduced or even eliminated then animals would no longer be slaughtered for consumer products, and the environment would heal. In an effort to counter overpopulation scare tactics, there are other vegans who quickly assert how livestock production contributes to water pollution, desertification of the land, displacement of Native populations and carbon emissions, but they become mired in point-counterpoint debates over environmental science, giving scant attention to the human groups most affected by the overpopulation morality play. They suggest the solution is more education and accessible birth control so that women can make better choices and stop having such large families. The problem in each instance is the absence of critical thought regarding the use of the term overpopulation. Specifically, as long as the vegan animal rights movement frames the discussion about human procreation as a choice argument grounded in pseudo-concern for the fate of the planet and economics, the movement ignores a far more serious threat and deep contradiction to veganism: the advancement of eugenics, the belief that the human gene pool can and should be improved through selective procreation and forced sterilization.

Any overpopulation claim that fails to address eugenics and simply demands that humans have to stop procreating because the planet and its resources are threatened is nothing more than a pseudo concern for the planet, a concern meant to disguise racism, classism and sexism. Overpopulation is a socially constructed concept with a long history of being promoted by the white man cis gendered elite scientists and corporations of the world. Stripped of polysyllabic terminology and statistical arguments about environmental damage, overpopulation is nothing more than a nameless, faceless scare tactic. Its aim is to objectify the so-called unruly masses, to deny them their rights, and to glorify the wealthy elite by encouraging them to procreate and populate the world with their precious gene pool. Those who assert that no one should procreate regardless of social status still fail to acknowledge the sexism and racism of such a demand.

Cartoon with oil well exploding with people, reads, "The well is dry, but we've got a gusher of new customers"

Certainly there is an element of truth to the overpopulationist propaganda, e.g. climate change is real, but it has little to do with the number of humans on the planet and everything to do with the overpopulation of cattle (McKnight, 2014). Oil spills, deforestation and global poverty are not the result of overpopulation; rather, they can be directly linked to corporate greed, capitalism that regards the earth as nothing more than an endless supply of materials for consumer goods and the military-industrial complex that values war over investing in real peace keeping efforts such as feeding the hungry. Arguments against these and other overpopulationist claims can be refuted statistic by statistic, but such debate will do nothing to reframe the issues in a way that accentuates the hidden agenda of overpopulationists—their racism, sexism, ableism and classism. Any future dialogues need to focus on individualism, social darwinism and eugenics, the ideologies that underpin the entire overpopulation perspective.

The rift between overpopulationists and social justice advocates both within and outside of the vegan movement is growing, thanks in large part to the hatred of humans so frequently espoused by animal rights leaders such as Gary Yourofsky and his loyal followers. Off-hand comments about humans not deserving to live because they are responsible for all of the suffering brought on other animals are expressions of the overpopulationist dogma and based in individualism. In order to understand how social darwinism and eugenics work it is necessary to first look at the concept of individualism (see Note 1).

Individualism is the belief that each person is only responsible for their own self and will receive rewards—wealth, salaries, social position, education, access to medical care—based on individual merit. This belief system is used to support capitalism and to keep the working class motivated while performing mundane tasks in dead end jobs. As long as workers believe if they work hard enough they can rise in social class and accumulate wealth, they will continue to show up for work, not complain about working conditions and tell anyone who will listen that the company owners are heroes. Those who do not succeed are easily dismissed as individuals who did not work hard enough or long enough; it is their own fault for being failures. After all, the evolution of society can be summed up as survival of the fittest, just like in nature, right? Well, no.

Ever since the work on evolutionary theory by Charles Darwin became known there have been attempts to identify patterns of evolution in society similar to those found in plants and other animals. Policy makers have long thought it obvious that those living in poverty or with mental health problems were not as evolved as the wealthy elite class. Such a belief depends on a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Darwin was interested in how plants, for instance, adapted to a changing environment and described the process as natural selection (not to be confused with artificial selective breeding), he also observed how such processes occurred slowly and could not be seen in any one generation. He did not initially see the processes as some sort competition in which only the fittest survived or were rewarded in some way by nature. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is credited with coining the term survival of the fittest in relation to society, and then Darwin later used the term to refer to local, immediate adaptations to a given environment. As time passed, Darwin’s theory became equated solely with survival of the fittest rather than natural selection, and sociologists tagged the phrase survival of the fittest as social darwinism, usually used as a pejorative term. Sociologists were pitted against politically conservative policy makers who were trying to justify discriminatory legislation by claiming only the fittest humans should survive. Social darwinism—a pseudo-scientific claim—thus became the rationalization for individualism and the social policies that were based on individualism.


Individualism also decries charity as unnecessary for the lower classes since they are responsible for the consequences of their own laziness, for financial troubles and for having big families or too many children. While capitalism depends on having a ready supply of workers willing to accept low pay and to sing the praises of the economic system that entraps them, capitalism bears no responsibility for the hardships related to poverty. What a perfect economic system!! The wealthy elite exploit the workers, cast aside the humans deemed unfit and manage to get the exploited masses to defend the entire system by keeping the hope alive that anyone can achieve THE AMERICAN DREAM!!

This whole notion of individualism or the American Dream, which is now a global belief system, can be seen throughout the industrialization and modernization of the States. Eugenics, the belief and related practices that any animal population, including the human population, can be genetically improved through controlled reproduction, dates back centuries, but became closely linked to individualism in the 19th century. Scientists who promoted eugenics or the eugenics movement of the 20th century were at first interested in controlled reproduction as a way to eliminate mental illness and other hereditary diseases. After all, if scientist Gregor Mendel could trace patterns of inheritance in pea plants in 1865, later scientists reasoned similar patterns might be traced in humans. Eugenics was the cornerstone of the Immigration Restriction League which was founded in 1894 to prevent those of certain races who might contaminate the superior American gene pool from entering the country. Literacy tests were proposed as early as 1897 to help identify inferior immigrants. In 1910 Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office and within the next twenty years the goal of the organization became preventing unfit humans from having any children.

By the late 1920s forced sterilization of those deemed unfit was widely accepted and laws based on a 1914 model statute were passed:

Advocacy in favor of sterilization was one of Harry Laughlin’s first major projects at the Eugenics Record Office. In 1914, he published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or “maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws (Lombardo, n.d.).

It is estimated that between the early 1900s and the mid-1970s over 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized. Women were the main victims of forced sterilization, and at first many who were sterilized were already committed to mental institutions and labelled imbeciles. As sterilization became the norm, some victims were taken from their homes and reasons for sterilization included pregnancy while unmarried, general promiscuity, having a sexually transmitted disease or being a pauper. The reasoning by the thirty-three states with forced sterilization laws was that it was a way to prevent people from becoming a burden on society, especially if they had to be housed in a state run mental institution, receive some kind of public aid or be held in prisons. Also, at this time in history more and more immigrants were arriving in U.S. cities and they were being blamed for the rise in crime and poverty. Eugenics was heralded as a solution by medical professionals and city officials alike (Norrgard, 2008).

The majority of the country is shaded to indicate presence of laws

It is an understatement to say racism and eugenics are historically and inextricably linked. Throughout the eugenics movement Black women were regarded as responsible for passing traits to their daughters that would lead to a future of doom, lives of “poverty, delinquency, and despair (Sebring, 2007).”

During the 1950s in the US South white women faced economic, legal, and medical obstacles to their access to reproductive services such as contraceptives and sterilization procedures. During this same time family planning initiatives targeted women of color (particularly black women) encouraging the use of contraceptives and sterilizations in the interest of reducing the growth of the black population. Family planning initiatives were politically espoused by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond, as a racialized form population control in the interest of limiting black voter strength in the US South. State funding for family planning clinics frequently received popular support when associated with women of color, though the same was not true when associated with white women. Or, in the words of Louisiana judge Leander Perez, “The best way to hate a nigger is to hate him before he is born.” (Sebring, 2007)

Who were the women who were involuntarily sterilized? The overpopulationists have managed to objectify them as populations, robbing them of their names, faces and voices in the process. Efforts to compensate victims were and continue to be met with disdain as well as arguments that the state funds are better spent elsewhere. Such was the case in North Carolina until 2013 when the victims were awarded $10 million dollars after a prolonged battle with legislators. Elaine Riddick is one of the victims.

Elaine Riddick and Son

Riddick and Son

Elaine Riddick was raped and impregnated at 13 years old and, after giving birth to her baby boy Tony, she was sterilized against her will. Afterward, she lived for years in shame, but had something to prove.

“People need to know that injustice was done towards them and they need to be compensated for that,” said Riddick,…

Riddick has been a formidable advocate for her fellow victims, pressing North Carolina to make amends. But multiple attempts at compensation have not come to fruition.

On Thursday Riddick said she was amazed to learn of North Carolina’s plans to compensate victims.

“I tip my hat to North Carolina, finally they came to their senses and decided to do what’s right,” she said.

Still, Riddick added, the money isn’t enough.

“You can’t put a price on someone taking your womb or castrating you, it’s humiliating,” Riddick said (Naggiar, 2013).

It was not until after WWII that forced sterilization began to fall out of favor with proponents in the United States. People learned that Laughlin’s Model Sterilization Law was the inspiration for the law adopted by Nazi Germany in 1933, a law that legally sanctioned the sterilization of over 350,000 people. Laughlin was even awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work in “the science of racial cleansing” (Lombardo P. A., 2008). So, it was not the racism of sterilizing Black women that launched the move to halt the sterilizations, nor was it forced sterilizations of girls as young as ten. Furthermore, the laws were not changed based on the lack of informed consent. No. The laws were not challenged until it became embarrassing to be associated with the genocide carried out by the Nazis, a genocide that ran concurrently with a genocide of POC in the states.

Eugenics and forced sterilization remain in the news today. In 2013 it was revealed that 148 women prisoners in California were denied their right to informed consent and sterilized between 2006 and 2010. On September 25, 2014 California passed Senate Bill 1135 to “prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility… (Senate Bill No. 1135, 2014).”

In September of 2014 the vice chairperson of the Arizona Republican Party and former state senator resigned his position after making comments about the sterilization of Medicaid recipients:

“You put me in charge of Medicaid, the first thing I’d do is get Norplant, birth-control implants, or tubal ligations,” Russell Pearce said on his radio show, according to a transcript from the Arizona Republic. “Then we’ll test recipients for drugs and alcohol, and if you want to [reproduce] or use drugs or alcohol, then get a job (McDonough, 2014).”

Similar stories continue to be reported from around the world, including comments by self-described vegans. A recent Facebook discussion among vegans on the topic of over-population shows how someone in a position of privilege can become defensive at the mere suggestion of racism in the language they use to discuss procreation:

Commenter #1: I am always skeptical around blanket statements about procreation. For too long it’s been a form of racism to talk about POC women as “breeders” or “welfare queens.” Demands to end procreation also come from a classist perspective in that rural white women and POC women have been targets, including decades of pressure to be sterilized or in some cases being sterilized without consent. Which leads to the observation that arguments against procreation contribute to sexism when they silence the voices of women. Yes, women should have access to information about birth control and adoption, but not at the expense of a patriarchal society doing so simply to perpetuate patriarchal values. What we’re really talking about here is the need to realize how corporatism and capitalism combine to create all of these products that are destroying the environment and marketing them to the point people think they can’t live without them. It’s not procreation that is the issue, but rather how consumption is promoted as a way of life

Commenter #2: Everyone should stop breeding imo. Every color, rich or poor. Birth control should be free & always available worldwide imo.

Commenter #1: …did I really just read these words? ” Everyone should stop breeding imo. Every color, rich or poor. Birth control should be free & always available worldwide imo.” I’ll play nice and ask: Why in your opinion should everyone stop “breeding”? Also, the word “breeding/ers” is problematic in terms of socially reproducing racism.

Commenter #2: The world is severely overpopulated period. We need to give it a rest. Too many ppl too many unnecessary selfish problems. Breed means procreate nothing racist. [emphasis added]

It is common to find the words breeders and moos used among certain vegan overpopulationist factions in reference to women who give birth to children, and there can be little doubt those terms are both racially charged and sexist.

Banana Girl Freelee, a self-described vegan, uses similar racist, sexist and classist language in a recent YouTube video:

We need drastic action or else we’re goin’ down the shitter and we’re takin’ the rest of the species with us. We’re destroying all the other species, including ourselves. So obviously the load needs to be lightened on Mother Nature. We need to stop draining the f*cking resources until they’re all gone and so here’s what I propose: is that people have a test. They need a license, a permit before they procreate, before they have children. They need to pass a test…So, what does that test consist of?…They definitely need to have a stable income so they can actually look after children…have money in the bank that’s for sure (vegan, 2015).

Freelee Banana GirlAt a time when voting rights for Persons of Color are being challenged with voter identification laws and literacy tests, it is not surprising to find the script for the overpopulation morality play includes a test for the right to procreate.

Ironically, members of the upper class are encouraged to have as many children as they want, as shown in a recent story about how large families are now “the ultimate status symbol” among wealthy women from New York City’s Upper East Side. Wendy Martin, Ph.D., author of Primates of Park Avenue, is quoted as saying:

When you think about it, it’s logical that a big family equals a big status symbol: It’s expensive to raise kids anywhere, and especially in New York City, where full-time nannies, private school, and summer camp are standard expenses. In the US, the average cost of raising a child is $245,340, according to a recent government report. But that figure more than doubles — to $540,514 — when that child is being raised in Manhattan (Zeveloff, 2015).

Thin white women in a park tending to childrenClearly, as long as the interests of the upper class are at stake, they must be defended and presented in a way consistent with individualism, with the notion that they earned the right to have as many children as they want and can afford. There are no suggestions that the wealthy need more education about birth control, nor is there any implication that they somehow are not smart enough to understand how large family size must surely lead to poverty. And what about all of those scarce resources that these children will consume over the course of their lifetimes? All is well as long as they can afford the steaks, fur coats, servants and fancy cars that burn an exorbitant amount of fossil fuel? Population expert Fred Pearce argues that rising consumption is the real problem, not overpopulation:

“Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising head count as a threat to the planet,” Mr. Pearce wrote in Prospect, a British magazine, in 2010. “And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet.”

“Let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest current concern because of climate change,” he continued. “The world’s richest half billion people — that’s about 7 percent of the global population — are responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 percent of the population are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions (Haberman, 2015).

Maybe the time has come for vegans who double as overpopulationists to think critically about whether they want to continue supporting a racist, sexist and classist ideology or consider how consumerism and consumption impact planetary resources.

Even if all the eugenics laws in the world are struck from the books, the ideology of individualism and the American Dream will continue to drive our social world and a large segment of the vegan movement. It is far easier to hate all humans for what they are doing to other animals than it is to examine how we all participate in systems of oppression. Go ahead and blame oppressed and exploited humans for speciesism, for rampant consumerism and for being selfish. Individualism tells us we have no responsibility for other humans, so why not hate them and objectify them? Know this one thing and know it well: We all serve the interests of the white man dominated elite class as long as we do not take the responsibility to challenge the racism, sexism and classism of the overpopulation myth. As long as we are preoccupied with directing hate toward other humans, we will not be demanding accountability from the capitalist leaders and major corporations that are responsible for environmental degradation, the murder and torture of animals for profit, the formation of the school to prison pipeline and the growth of the military-industrial complex.

Being against eugenics is NOT taking anything away from working for the animals or ending the oppression of other animals. BUT ending speciesism will not end the hatred of humans for other humans, the bigotry directed toward Persons of Color or the ideology of individualism that tells everyone to turn their backs on those deemed unworthy. The ultimate manifestation of speciesism occurs whenever humans objectify and dehumanize other humans by denying them their rights while at the same time claiming they are anti-speciesist because they think the rights of all animals must be respected. What a contradiction in terms!! Humans will work to universally grant rights to other animals and simultaneously direct hatred and blame toward other humans, toward breeders and MOOs, unless every effort is made to expose the overpopulation morality play for what it is: unadulterated bigotry.

The words of writer and animal rights activist Christopher Sebastian (personal communication, 2015) offer an eloquent summary of how individualism works and how deeply racism strikes in the animal rights movement:

Animal Rights Friends:

How come when I am talking about human privilege, most of my vegan friends understand I’m talking about living in a society structured to advantage humans…where humans are granted greater levels of access based on arbitrary biological distinctions outside of their control? Indeed, they’re even quick to abdicate such privilege and discuss ways in which we need to alter our society for greater levels of inclusion and sensitivity to our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters.

But when I start talking about how white privilege disenfranchises people of color in the same way, it’s a goddamn showcase showdown. Suddenly, my white vegan friends are quick to point out how they worked hard and sometimes they experienced adversity. None of this matters!!! You still hold power in a structure dominated by and cultivated to center whiteness. Some days, I’m just so damn tired of having to talk about this. But seriously, can we not make a space to understand how life operates differently for POC animal rights activists and allies? Damn.


Note 1: Individualism is not to be confused with individuality. The former is an ideology that supports capitalism; the latter refers to someone’s personal preferences and tastes.


Altheide, D. L. (2002). Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Current World Population. (2015, May 31). Retrieved from Worldmeters: http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

Haberman, C. (2015, May 31). The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/01/us/the-unrealized-horrors-of-population-explosion.html?_r=0

Lombardo, P. A. (2008). Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v Bell. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lombardo, P. (n.d.). Eugenic Sterilization Laws. Retrieved from Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement: http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay8text.html

McDonough, K. (2014, September 15). Arizona GOPer quits after disgusting comment — but there’s a catch . Retrieved from SALON: http://www.salon.com/2014/09/15/arizona_goper_quits_after_disgusting_comment_but_theres_a_catch/

McDonough, K. (2014, September 15). Arizona GOPer quits after disgusting comment–but there’s a catch. Retrieved from SALON: http://www.salon.com/2014/09/15/arizona_goper_quits_after_disgusting_comment_but_theres_a_catch/

McKnight, T. (2014, August 4). Want to have a real impact on climate change? Then become a vegetarian. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/04/climate-change-impact-vegetarian

Naggiar, S. (2013, July 29). Victims of forced sterilization to receive $10 million from North Carolina. Retrieved from the Grio: http://thegrio.com/2013/07/29/victims-of-forced-sterilization-to-receive-10-million-from-north-carolina/

Norrgard, K. P. (2008). Human Testing, the Eugneics Movement, and IRBs. Retrieved from

Scitable A Collaborative Learning Space for Science: http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/Human-Testing-the-Eugenics-Movement-and-IRBs-724

Sebring, S. (2007, November 19). sterilization — black women. Retrieved from mississippi appendectomy, a developing online archive of information about women of color and coercive sterilization: https://mississippiappendectomy.wordpress.com/2007/11/19/black-women-in-the-1960s-and-1970s/

Senate Bill No. 1135. (2014, September 14). Retrieved from California Legislative Information: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB1135

vegan, p. a. (2015, May 14). Why “overpopulation” isn’t the real problem (Freelee response). Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nulTqmHH7eg&feature=youtu.be

Zeveloff, J. (2015, May 25). The ultimate status symbol for millionaire moms on New York’s Upper East Side is not what you’d expect. Retrieved from Yahoo! Finance: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/ultimate-status-symbol-among-millionaire-164732256.html


Michele Spino MartindillDr. Martindill earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Missouri and taught there in the Sociology Department, the Peace Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Her areas of emphasis include political sociology, organizations and work, and social inequalities. Dr. Martindill’s dissertation focuses on the no-kill shelter social movement and is based on ethnographic research conducted during several years of working in an animal shelter. She is vegan, a feminist and is currently interested in the stories women tell through their needlework, including crochet, counted cross stitch and quilting. It is important to note that Dr. Martindill consistently uses her academic title in order to inspire women and members of other marginalized groups to pursue their dreams no matter what challenges those dreams may entail, and certainly one of her goals is to see more women in academia.

There are NO Cults in the Animal Rights Movement!! So, What about Yourofsky?

By: Dr. C. Michele Martindill

Trigger Warning: Discusses the violent rhetoric of Gary Yourofsky, which many have described as racist, ableist, and sexist. Comments from Yourofsky supporters included in this essay also engage heterosexism. Finally, this essay analyzes the formation of cults and may be upsetting to those who have been personally impacted by cult exploitation.



Someone with years of experience in the animal rights movement raised an intriguing question when she asked a straightforward question: Why can’t we get all of the leaders within the animal rights movement into a room to work out their differences and find a way to do what’s best for the animals? What a question!! YES, great idea! The movement does need to find a common definition for animal rights and a comprehensive path for activism. After all, there is much confusion over what to call the movement: Veganism? Animal rights? Animal Liberation? Vegan Abolitionist? OR How about Movement for Animal Rights, Veganism, Environmentalism, Liberation and Abolition (MARVELA!!)? Once the leaders settle on a name for the movement they can sit down and plot movement strategies: Diets? Boycotts? Direct action? Marches? Information tables? Facebook pages? Passionate speeches? Shopping for vegan products? Good. Now the movement has a name and some immediate goals. Nice day dream so far, eh? All that’s left is deciding on the scope of the movement: Is the movement about social justice for all, the environment or just for the animals? Uh oh. The dream is getting fuzzy. Will the movement encompass ending the oppression and exploitation of humans, too? Zap!  Lightning bolt End of daydream! The realization dawns that the movement leaders gathered in a room to build a more coherent movement are all upper class-abled-cis gendered-white men—men like Gary Yourofsky. Nooooo!

Just when the movement needs to decenter and dismantle the white man dominated leadership in order to center previously marginalized groups, it would be a step in the wrong direction to even invite Gary Yourofsky to a planning session for a movement that could potentially impact so many lives. Recent essays have documented the problematic nature of Yourofsky’s views and the unquestioning loyalty of his followers. Some attribute his rise to prominence in the movement to hero worship on the part of followers. A few portray him as a fascist dictator, and others declare Yourofsky a cult leader. So, which is it? Using social psychology to examine how the cult leaders become established and the attraction of cults for followers will help to reveal a major problem within the animal rights movement—the notion that if we just silence one vocal, hate-filled leader the problem of disunity and oppression of marginalized groups in the movement will be solved.

Hero worship of a cult leader may end, but we will still be living in a social world grounded in patriarchy, a social world in which every interaction is man-centered or becomes man-centered the second a man notices women trying to make their voices heard. In addition, there are women in the movement who wear this institutionalized man-centered ideology either with pride or sometimes unknowingly—a patriarchal ideology that installs men as the leaders and women as the followers. The strategy of pitting women against women, those who support patriarchal leadership against those who challenge it, is not uncommon. A real danger in the movement is feeling that other women are the ones perpetuating oppression and exploitation of the women who dare to speak up, to question authority. It is important to keep in mind that all women are the victims here, victims of manipulation, and historical or institutionalized patterns of social organization.

Furthermore, the self-serving bias, a social psychological process through which people preserve their self-esteem by asserting the belief that only others participate in questionable behaviors or interactions, tells us no one is immune to joining a cult. Anyone—you, me, or the most dedicated social justice activist—can become or may already be a cult member, but continue to deny it because we fear looking bad to others. We’re not the problem; it’s everyone else. It is theorized that women are more likely than men to be cult members, possibly because they are more accustomed to living their lives under the authority of men in leadership roles and showing deference to men. More research needs to be done with regard to how gender, race, social class and ableism relate to cult membership. If the animal rights movement is to become inclusive of members of marginalized groups, then it is imperative to ask how the predominantly upper class white abled leadership and membership of cults in the animal rights movement contributes to classism, racism, ableism and ultimately exclusion.

Would we know a cult if we saw it? What are the distinguishing features of cults? Cults are distinct from organized groups that focus on activities, one-time events or volunteerism. Cults are comprised of a strong, authoritarian leader and a group of dedicated, loyal followers. Certain social psychological processes have been identified to help explain how cults are formed. Cults can be focused on religion, promises of future wealth or enlightenment to the capital-T Truth, and political causes such as animal rights or veganism. There is nothing particularly different about people who join cults. People who join cults may have recently gone through some life challenge such as a divorce or a death in the family. They might also be inexperienced in social interactions or disillusioned with the status quo, e.g. those who are concerned about the oppression and exploitation of other animals. The common denominator is that potential followers are vulnerable in the sense that they want answers, solutions or some way of coping with perceived problems. A cult promises not only answers, but camaraderie (Langone, 2013).

Several young women in blue dresses flank a raised throne with an older man who resembles jesus with a wooden cross behind him

One thing to keep in mind about cult members is that contrary to popular belief, they do not suffer from low self-esteem any more or less than the general population, nor are they recruited based on having low self-esteem. Persons with psychological problems would most likely be considered a liability by cults and not capable of carrying out the work of the cult—defending the leader, bringing in money or recruiting duties (Rhoads, n.d.). The core question centers on how cults keep members in line and actively involved. It is not simply the power of the message delivered by the cult leader that puts a cult in motion.

Researchers have identified countless tactics used to motivate cult members and prevent their questions about the integrity of cult leadership. The “hot-seat technique” is one of the best known strategies. It involves putting the new member center stage in front of the group to confess their misdeeds or impure thoughts, and then having the leader and membership berate them in an effort to shatter their self-confidence and self-esteem. The idea is to keep members doubting their capabilities, and in constant need of the support of the cult leader and other cult members. A big group hug of some kind usually follows the hot-seat or center stage treatment, assuring the cult member all is well IF they follow the party line.

Lego man wearing a shirt with the word "you" crossed out while he flips the middle fingerSeveral examples of the hot-seat strategy from Facebook interactions and YouTube videos have Yourofsky spewing misogynistic, sexist, racist, ableist and other oppressive speeches aimed at supporters as well as those who might be swayed to become supporters. This strategy serves to set the rules of the cult, to impress listeners through dynamic, charismatic speech, and to force followers to consider their own actions and confess how they were once oppressors of other animals. The following comment by Yourofsky illustrates the point:

The latest lie being spread about me is that I’m a racist because I said Palestinians were crazy. But if I distrust or hate all humans and the way we behave, I am a misanthrope NOT a racist! Yet, my misanthropy causes no actual harm contrary to the human rights hypocrites who actively support violent exploitation AND murder every time they sit down to a meal.

In this introduction to Yourofsky’s latest YouTube video, “Palestinians, Blacks and Other Hypocrites,” Yourofsky uses ableist and racist language to defend himself against charges of racism, something that might seem likely to turn away followers, but actually establishes him as someone willing to insult and degrade humans—someone who appears brave and a formidable leader. Note the response of an enamored follower:

I thought the whole idea of being a vegan was for animal liberation. Why are we even talking about human rights, when so many animals continue to die every second of every year.
If you want to be a human rights activists, the door is open, exit veganism now.
I’ll agree with Gary on this. I’m glad he said it. At least he’s no hypocrite.
Can’t you see, we are the problem. Humans create their problems and then expect everyone to sympathize. Take responsibility for your actions.
On the other hand, animals, do not create problems nor do they expect any sympathy.
I defended Gary’s stance and I would do it again. Go join a human rights group and let us true vegans clean up your dirty work. And stay out of the way.

Support is offered for the leader’s ideology and followed with a confession that “…we are the problem. Humans create their problems…”. “True vegans” should either get with the plan or “go join a human rights group,” as if that would be the worst form of rejection by the cult.

The rules are clear: There is no room for human rights activists among Yourofsky’s followers, and his response to the above Facebook comment dishes up approval for those who agree and lets everyone know what constitutes sanity and logical thinking:


Racism comes more into play with the next comment from Yourofsky:

Malcolm X once said: “You cannot be anti slavery and pro slavemaster.” Animals are the victims/slaves. Humans are the victimizers/slavemasters.. I side with the slaves and will no longer defend humans who scream about their mistreatment when they dish it out to the animals.

The tokenism and appropriation of a quote from a leader in the Civil Rights Movement is blatant and allows Yourofsky to portray the simple good vs. evil mythology that grounds so many religions. He does so by ignoring hundreds of years of human slavery and claiming all humans are “slavemasters.” One follower touts the revelations of Yourofsky as the “new paradigm”; however, Yourofsky is well aware of those who would challenge this new paradigm:

… except my enemies come from WITHIN the vegan movement. vegans have been trying to silence me for more than a decade. and they’re gonna win soon because I am worn out and burnt out.

Prophecy!! One of the great trademarks of a cult leader—the ability to predict the future! Most impressive. We also gain a clearer picture of THE enemy: vegans!! A form of call and response, a preaching style in which the minister speaks and the congregation answers with an affirmation, follows throughout this Facebook discussion thread. Comments supportive of Yourofsky net words of praise from the leader, and negative comments are met with admonishments to watch his video again or to go away (polite terminology). The vast majority of responses from followers are reinforcing Yourofsky’s views, including his racism:

I’m rapidly becoming disliked by most people I know….because I 100% share your attitude, morals and beliefs. I’d rather be a fuc***g loner, than a murdering hypocrite! The name calling and personal attacks are becoming the norm, and I couldn’t give a shite! OUR WORDS ARE RIGHTEOUS, THE TRUTH, SPOKEN WITH COMPASSION AND MORAL. For every murderer I see shovelling in a fork full of suffering…they’ll get my harsh words for afters, couldn’t give a flying shit what colour or where they’re from! My life focuses on the devastation humans cause…so FU** HUMAN RIGHTS!!

Another writes:

If they ever win by silencing you, I’ll carry your cross for you. You have plenty of support Gary.
Never forget that!

Homosexuals are another frequent target for cult members:

Yeah or the homosexuals who want “their rights” and respect, but cannot do the same for all of nonhuman animals that end up on their plates every time of every day. They want to get what they themselves don’t want to do. I used to fight so much for the homosexuals rights until I saw that when it came to what I cared about ( nonhuman animals ) they were not willing to support my cause in any way. So sad that they’re so selfish.

And then one person dares to question Yourofsky on his claims of success in making the world go vegan:

I agree about the hypocrisy of fighting for human rights while hurting animals but I don’t think hating people helps them see what they’re doing.

Yourofsky responds:

The Real Gary Yourofsky how can you say that when I have converted between 100,000 to one million with MY ATTITUDE/STYLE and the lovey dovey BS pacifists haven’t done shit? stop believing in fairytales like love conquers hate.

Yes, a part of cult leadership is laying claim to vast numbers of unverifiable conversions or some other accomplishment as proof that their strategies are effective and to motivate followers. Given Yourofsky’s focus on making all of Israel vegan, it is possible Yourofsky is referring to a survey that suggests vegans in Israel number 10% of the population or about 700,000 people, giving the country one of the largest per capita vegan populations in the world, but questions grounded in critical thought about this number are absent from the discussion. A 2001 report from the Israeli Ministry of Health shows “7.2% of the men and 9.8% of the women identified themselves as vegetarians” (Neiman, 2014). These numbers indicate Israel had a strong vegetarian population well before Yourofsky started his campaign for veganism in Israel. Also, while a recent report by Israeli media confirms that Yourofsky’s video from a Georgia Tech appearance in the summer of 2010, “The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” (Yourofsky, The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear, 2010), has been seen “by at least 396,000 people…(with Hebrew subtitles) (Darom, 2102), there is no way of knowing if all of the viewers were in Israel or if they immediately made the decision to be vegan.

Just as Yourofsky brags about his successes, he also proclaims extreme humility in an effort to show followers he is just like them, someone they can identify with and emulate:

“I’m not a politician. I’m not a salesperson. I don’t ask for donations. I don’t want donations. I want people’s minds. I want people to be kind for the animals (Yourofsky, Gary Yourofsky speaks to 450 students at Ben Gurion University, n.d.).

Setting aside Yourofsky’s comment that he wants people’s minds, his occupational profile fits that of many cult leaders who were writers, salespersons and carnival workers prior to leading their cults. Most notably, Yourofsky worked as a paid spokesperson or lecturer for PeTA between 2002 and 2005. The common thread is that these jobs all involve persuasion, a key skill requirement for someone trying to sell others on a particular dogma (Sagarin, n.d.). Any denial of political activity—using power to effect change—or working to sell people on his ideas is a direct contradiction of what he does every single time he takes the stage to speak. His denials are, however, a persuasive rhetorical technique, an attempt to show he has nothing to gain on a personal level. Nothing, except the notoriety that guarantees his voice will be heard over the voices from marginalized groups!

Internet culture brings with it new opportunities for cult formation and their sustained activities. Their work is often measured by the number of memes or YouTube videos they produce and disseminate, as well as the number of ‘likes’ these products receive on websites such as Facebook. There is also an unrelenting willingness of supporters to defend leaders, including Facebook page owners and moderators, no matter what they might publish. Public objections are frequently deleted and those who question authority are banned from the site. Still, the following general definition of cults remains the same for all types of cults:

• The leader is best classified as an authoritarian; simply put, it is the leader’s way or the highway
• The beliefs of a cult are different from the mainstream and often narrowly focused; they have the potential to be dangerous or even false; a cult often suggests that nothing matters except focusing on gaining converts
• Demanding changes in lifestyle for followers, e.g. a demand to cut off communication with family members who don’t show proper support
• Cults emphasize recruitment, soliciting money or other needed resources, and finding opportunities to make the cult’s videos or products available to the public
• Cults have distinctive ways of getting all members on the same page, of getting them to think the same way
• Insiders in cults are clearly distinguished from outsiders, sometimes with the use of insider language or symbols; outsiders are often attacked, and they are abused psychologically or physically (Nassim, 2013)

A friend once observed that the best way to handle cult leaders and the claims-making of cult members is to ignore them, to stop feeding their egos. Cults are more than the manifestations of any leader’s ego. Cults have to be seen in relation to the patriarchal institutions and oppressions of our social world. They do not exist in isolation of sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, classism or speciesism. It requires critical thought and questioning of cults in order to dismantle them or at least defuse their incessant attacks on those outside of the cult. Every time someone outside of the cult hedges their criticism of the cult they inadvertently support it. Yourofsky’s misogyny is often criticized, but the criticism is mitigated when it is promptly followed with praise, e.g. “But he does do a lot of good for the animals.”

Gary Yourofsky

Critical thinking involves revealing contradictions in interactions or public discourse, e.g. how can cult leaders claim to not care what people think about them, but then try to defend themselves from criticism? Critical thinking aims to expose relations of power and to challenge oppression. When it comes to an examination of the hate speech and the promotion of violence by Yourofsky here are a few questions grounded in critical thinking that must be asked:

1. Who or what group benefits from using violence—threats, bullying and verbal abuse—against humans as way to end violence against other animals? What is gained from threatening violence or violent acts? Psychological dominance? Financial power? Publicity?
2. Through what social processes have cults become a normalized part of the animal rights movement, normalized to the point that their role in promoting oppressions is rarely challenged?
3. Many movement members who are not involved with any cult insist they could never be cult members, following the pattern of the self-serving bias. To what extent is it an example of the self-serving bias that so many movement members try to excuse the problematic actions of cults by saying, “Well, at least they’re doing it for the animals”?
4. Whose voices are silenced by cults? How are they silenced? How do cults socially reproduce or reify existing structures of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, ageism and speciesism?
5. To what extent do members of animal rights movement cults lose their psychological autonomy? Especially the women who follow a man centered leadership?

An important point to consider in trying to end the influence of cults within the animal rights movement is that they are a reflection of our patriarchal social order. Without patriarchy and the acceptance of sexism and misogyny throughout society, cults would have a difficult time forming, much less gaining momentum. It may be frustrating to think about how cults make the animal rights movement look to the outside world, and to encounter the lies, exaggerations and misrepresentations vocalized by cult members; however, ending the influence of cults depends on identifying and challenging them with critically grounded questions. The demand made by cults to focus only on the animals does indeed sound noble and even desirable, but it is also a way of deflecting criticism by presenting a worthy goal, AND it is a way of isolating the membership from the pervasive oppressions of the social world. Cult followers are repeatedly told that there is no point in addressing racism or sexism, for instance, and that veganism is all that matters. Any plans for an inclusive animal rights movement, one that addresses social justice, will depend on a clear message that focuses on how speciesism cannot be eliminated by turning our backs on human oppressions.



Darom, N. (2102, September 6). Is vegan superstar Gary Yourofsky an animal savior or a mad militant? Retrieved from HAARETZ: http://tinyurl.com/q2hdmkw

Langone, P. M. (2013). Who Joins Cults and Why? Retrieved from ICSA International Cultic Studies Association: http://csj.org/studyindex/studycult/cultqa4.htm

Nassim, A. (2013, September 2). Online Cults. Retrieved from Internet Ascent: http://internetascent.blogspot.com/2013/09/online-cults.html

Neiman, R. (2014, February 6). What Israeli Vegans Eat – And Why. Retrieved from Israel 21c: http://www.israel21c.org/israel-in-pictures/what-israeli-vegans-eat-and-why/

Rhoads, P. K. (n.d.). Cults: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from Working Psychology: http://www.workingpsychology.com/cult.html

Sagarin, D. (n.d.). Cult Influence Tactics. Retrieved from Working Psychology: http://www.workingpsychology.com/cultdef.html

Yourofsky, G. (2010). The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear. Retrieved from YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/mkpoon4

Yourofsky, G. (2015, May 17). The Real Gary Yourofsky’s Photos. Retrieved from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/therealgaryyourofsky/photos/pb.772568189464273.-2207520000.1432180346./822615614459530/?type=1&theater

Yourofsky, G. (n.d.). Gary Yourofsky speaks to 450 students at Ben Gurion University. Retrieved from YouTube: http://tinyurl.com/m2qwhrg


Michele Spino MartindillDr. Martindill earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Missouri and taught there in the Sociology Department, the Peace Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Her areas of emphasis include political sociology, organizations and work, and social inequalities. Dr. Martindill’s dissertation focuses on the no-kill shelter social movement and is based on ethnographic research conducted during several years of working in an animal shelter. She is vegan, a feminist and is currently interested in the stories women tell through their needlework, including crochet, counted cross stitch and quilting. It is important to note that Dr. Martindill consistently uses her academic title in order to inspire women and members of other marginalized groups to pursue their dreams no matter what challenges those dreams may entail, and certainly one of her goals is to see more women in academia.

“Sexy at 70” and “Grumpy Old Vegans”: Ageist Stereotypes in the Vegan Movement

By Dr. C. Michele Martindill

“Ageism? Who cares about old people anyway? I volunteer with a group of white women over the age of 50. They are so behind the times and not helpful at all,” said a vegan.

“Why was it important for you to mention their age or gender?”

“Um…I don’t know.”

Vegans seem to at least recognize the words racism, sexism, classism, ableism and speciesism, but ageism is consistently left off that list of oppressions. Erasure. Silencing. Stereotyping older people as useless, past their prime, set in their ways and not able to contribute to the vegan movement. As one vegan once posted on Facebook, “Taking a stand against ageism feels too much like a single issue campaign, not really worth the effort. People need to just go vegan.” Really? Ageism is just a single issue campaign?

PETA ad featuring Pamela Anderson posing in a bikini with her body marked with meat cut names. Reads: "All animals have the same part"

PeTA is well known for its sexist advertising campaigns involving young women who pose partially or completely nude in an effort to get the public to stop eating or otherwise harming animals, e.g. celebrity Pamela Anderson posed in an almost non-existent bikini with her body marked off in the same way a butcher marks off the body parts of a cow—just to make the point that “All Animals Have the Same Parts.” Few would be surprised to learn that particular ad was banned in Montreal, Canada over the blatant sexism (Cavanagh, 2010), but how many people are aware that PeTA sponsors a Sexiest Vegan Over 50 contest? Judging is based on the entrant’s enthusiasm for their vegan lifestyle and “PeTA’s assessment of your physical attractiveness (PeTA, 2014).” Through a contest that objectifies women aged 50 and older, the public learns that a vegan lifestyle and diet should lead to what really matters in life—physical attractiveness. As if women don’t face enough pressure when they’re young to conform to standards of beauty created and institutionalized by men, they now have to face those same sexist standards as they age.

Actual avatar for Grumpy Old Vegans as described in text.

Of course, there are other stereotypes of older women in the animal rights movement. The Grumpy Old Vegans (GOV) Facebook page continues to use an avatar or logo depicting an older man and older woman with pronounced wrinkles, unfashionable clothing, grey hair, sour expressions and the woman is wearing pearl jewelry, a most un-vegan adornment (Grumpy Old Vegans, 2015). The representation of this pair as perpetually grumpy serves to stereotype older people, women in particular, as crotchety and is a form of ageism. While there is little doubt that if the GOV Facebook page used a logo featuring a couple in blackface or Native Americans as r-skins there would be a great public outcry, to date few have spoken up against the ageism of the wrinkle-bound couple logo.

Considering that vegans claim veganism is against all oppression, it is distressing to see them rank order which oppressions matter the most and which ones don’t even make the list, namely ageism. At the very least a definition of ageism is needed, explaining why and how it affects women more than men. Ageist stereotypes of older women affect the way they are stigmatized and contribute to their erasure from public concern. It is also important to explore how it is that men in leadership roles of the vegan animal rights movement can be so dismissive of older voices, particularly the voices of women.

AGEISM: The definition of ageism is straightforward–it is discrimination and prejudice against people based on their age, and is directed toward the very young as well as those who are considered old or elderly. Ageism is structural or systemic in our social world, meaning people learn it and enact it through social institutions, language, and organizations. People often don’t notice when they’re socially reproducing ageism, e.g. it is commonplace when someone forgets where they put something to say they’re having a senior moment, as if aging is universally defined by memory loss. Ageism is a relationship of power in that the dominant group in society uses ageism to oppress, exploit and silence those who are very young or much older. Just as the vegan animal rights movement stands against racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and speciesism, it stands against ageism—or at least some movement members claim it does. That remains to be seen.

STEREOTYPING: The tools of ageism are stereotyping and attaching stigmas to older people. Stereotypes are overly simple, fixed, rigid or exaggerated beliefs about an entire group or population of people. Stereotypes can lead to and be used to justify prejudice and discrimination. Aging women experience stereotyping more than men. Their bodies are criticized based on wrinkles, weight, hair color, posture, incontinence and overall loss of beauty; men may be similarly criticized, but are most likely regarded as distinguished in their later years and have the social capital—kinship, friendships, co-workers—to slough off negative stereotypes. Some of the most often used stereotypes of older people include:

1) All old people get sick and have disabilities, including hearing loss, urinary incontinence and blindness.
2) Old people are incapable of learning anything new; they are set in their ways.
3) Old women are a burden on everyone.
4) “Old people are grouchy and cantankerous.” (The Senior Citizen Times, 2011)

These and other stereotypes are communicated in multiple ways throughout the vegan animal rights movement. In a recent Facebook discussion of how PeTA uses young blonde white women in their advertising campaigns several women pointed out the sexism and racism of such a tactic. None mentioned ageism. One man stepped in to ‘mansplain’ and defend PeTA:

Humans are sexual beings and there’s nothing wrong with that. This doesn’t degrade women the same way half-naked male models don’t degrade men. It just looks like you’re actively looking for sexism, racism, or some sort of discrimination in an effort to be politically correct. I don’t think that’s a good approach. (Toronto Vegetarian Association, 2015)

When told by a woman that it degrades women to be reduced to the sum of their body parts and that they are only heard if they are considered sexy, this same man responded:

How exactly does it suggest that being sexy is the only way people will hear you if you’re a woman? That’s just ridiculous. People listen to not attractive people. Look at Hilary Clinton for godsake. [Emphasis added] That’s just a weird argument with no validity. I’ve never seen someone turn down a conversation with a woman based on their attractiveness.

How exactly does looking at and LIKING someone’s body disrespecting them? It seems like YOU are the one degrading women here. And it’s funny – aren’t feminists about women having freedom to wear what they want without being judged? Double standard much?

Oh my. If it’s not degrading to use half-naked men in advertising, then it’s okay to use half-naked women? What this man does not understand is how men have the power to deflect attempts at objectification. Women do not, not at any age. Please note there’s no mention of ageism in his reasoning, but Hilary Clinton, current presidential candidate in the United States, is held up as an example of “not attractive people” who can still get attention. Furthermore, this man calls out the women in the conversation for being bad feminists since they failed to support his admiration for attractive young women. The explicit ageism in this conversation was never mentioned, and it served to socially reproduce acceptance of ageism, acceptance of making disparaging remarks about women based on their age and appearance.

Clinton Sexism Ageism

STIGMA: Stereotypes lead to stigmas. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) defined stigma as society attaching an undesirable attribute to an individual and then reacting negatively to that individual in such a way as to rob them of their identity, their ability to function or fully participate in society (Link & Phelan). In our social world, age is seen as an undesirable physical attribute, a stigma that is attached to women through man dominated ideologies which favor younger women for their sexualized bodies. Whenever a person or group displays a stereotypical representation of women as wrinkled, grouchy, or set in their ways, they contribute to the stigma of aging and socially reproduce ageism.

Criticism of a stereotypical ageist logo on the GOV Facebook page was met with dismissiveness on the grounds that people have a right to identify themselves as old and grumpy, and then the author, who was a man, made an ad hominem attack on the person who challenged his group:

…if you truly believe that people who identify themselves as old, grumpy and vegan and run a page with that title, using caricatures to represent themselves, are ageist for those reasons alone then your thinking is as muddled as that of those who made the allegation originally.

The man continued to defend his group’s ageist logo by dismissing sociological research and by stating that since the majority of the group “liked” it on Facebook, the logo could not possibly be ageist:

sociology is not an exact science. For that reason, it would be foolish to regard every utterance from sociologists as gospel. The rebuttal of this allegation issued on the page was ‘liked’ by a large number of people, many of whom expressed appreciation for a page they identified with, as they often felt invisible in a movement that celebrates youth. There were no adverse comments. In short, there is no substantive evidence to support the allegation.

What some vegans fail to see is how their actions affect others outside of the group. A logo or mascot is not ageist based on the vote of a membership who benefit from the stereotyping; ageism is grounded in any action that stigmatizes people based on their age.

Kyriarchal or Interactive Systems of Oppression: Kyriarchal social justice addresses all forms of oppression—racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and speciesism—and focuses on the dynamics of how these systems are interactive, crisscrossing and layered oppressions in the lives of individuals and groups (see below for a definition of kyriarchy—what was formerly referred to as intersectional). All oppressions are socially reproduced and linked by social institutions, through the economic, medical, legal, educational, religious and any other type of social institutions people navigate on a daily basis.

Too often when women in the vegan animal rights movement point out institutional ageism they are told by movement leaders that drawing attention to oppressions such as ageism is wrong, that kyriarchal social justice means we should just get along and go vegan for the animals because ending speciesism is all that matters. These vegans seem fine with claiming they care about humans and readily assert they are opposed in a general sense to things like racism, but they rank order oppressions and try to cherry pick the oppressions that matter most to them, leaving the rest to sit unnoticed. Why? In part they fear doing harm to the vegan animal rights movement and its organizations; they fear attention will be drawn away from ending speciesism or that outsiders will not join the movement if they have to stand against all oppressions. It is also difficult for the movement to envision how to address kyriarchal social justice when most of the leaders are men and eighty percent of the followers are women, when most of the membership is white, cis-gendered, young, without disabilities and not living in poverty. By not addressing ageism vegans socially reproduce and reify the stereotypes and stigmas associated with aging in our society.

AGEISM DOES REAL HARM: What harm is there in ignoring ageism? Plenty. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Southern California found that negative stereotypes about aging can potentially impair the memory of older people. “The study found that a group of older people asked to perform memory tests after reading fictitious articles about age-related memory problems did less well than a group given articles on preservation of and improvement in memory with age (Shuttleworth, 2013).” The older people who experienced memory loss fell victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy and the cliché of older people losing cognitive function just because they are old.

Older Laotian women sewing rugs for market

In addition, stereotypes keep people from seeing the realities of aging; they erase and marginalize older voices. Telling older people—especially women—to just go vegan will not address the financial problems faced by an aging population. Older women are at particular risk to be living in poverty. A report from 2012 based on US Census Bureau data reveals that over half of elder-only households lack the financial resources to pay for basic needs. Sixty percent of women aged 65 and older who live alone or with a marriage partner cannot meet day-to-day expenses. Women of retirement age are hit particularly hard by economic insecurity. Their pensions are smaller than those of men, they own fewer assets, and lack the education and job skills needed for post-retirement employment. Some of this economic disparity is the result of women leaving their careers to care for families and for their own elderly parents, and thereby losing opportunities for promotions as well as building up Social Security income. Also, women outlive men, leaving them alone with a single income and having to exhaust assets just to have shelter and food (Wider Opportunites for Women, 2012).

Older women of color are more likely than white women to have sufficient retirement incomes. Almost 50% of white women have insufficient retirement incomes to afford daily needs, while nearly 75% of Black women, 61% of Asian women and 75% of “Hispanic” (see US Census Bureau definition of Hispanic below) women were in households that could not afford basic expenses—even with Social Security income and Medicare coverage (Wider Opportunities for Women, 2012). Vegans who stereotype and stigmatize older women as self-sufficient and out of touch with animal rights might want to consider how these women have more pressing concerns in their lives, e.g. how they will make the next rent payment or pay the heating bill. Keep in mind, too, these numbers do not take into account those who are homeless or who live in elder care of some sort.

Cost of aging

STOP AGEISM in the VEGAN MOVEMENT: All vegans can work to eliminate ageism and extend empathic understanding to older people by considering how clichés and gaslighting—silencing someone with a barrage of questions and attacks—frame interactions with older people. Following are ten of the most often repeated ageist clichés found throughout the vegan animal rights movement and in vegan Facebook discussion threads:

1. “I feel old, so I know what you’re feeling even though I’m not really old myself.”
No, you don’t know what it means to feel old. You haven’t experienced it. Just as a white person has no way of knowing what it feels like to be Black, young people come across as dismissive and patronizing when they pretend to know how it feels like to be old.
2. “Age is just a number” or “You’re only as old as you feel.”
Condescending! Implicit in these statements is the view that young is better than old, so just don’t look at the number.
3. “I’m having a senior moment.”
This cliché is most often uttered when someone wants to explain a mental lapse of some kind or a moment of forgetfulness, and it stereotypes “seniors” as having diminished mental capacities. It’s not only ageist, but ableist!
4. “Ageism feels like a single issue campaign (SIC). Let’s keep the focus on the animals.”
Veganism is an effort to end the exploitation of all animals, including humans. Ageism in its many forms is exploitation. It misrepresents veganism to deny ageism exists or that its effects are harmless.
5. “I’m not ageist! You’re the one being ageist by bringing it up!!”
Here’s an example of reverse ageism. There is no such thing as reverse ageism, just as there is no such thing reverse racism. Only the group holding power can inflict oppression.
6. “I’m old, so I can say what I want about old people.”
Yes, old people can discuss aging in ways young people can’t, but remember disparaging remarks and stereotypes hurt ALL old people. Think about the big picture!!
7. “Jokes about aging are culturally relative. We poke fun at old people in the United Kingdom.” OR “Lighten up! Get over yourself!”
If a vegan anywhere in the world knows their words or actions will hurt others by contributing to ageism or any other oppression, then they can’t use cultural relativism as an excuse for their disrespectful behavior. It’s that simple.
8. “Old people discriminate against young people, so why can’t we make fun of old people?”
Yes, some older persons may be prejudiced against young people or discriminate against them, but stereotypes don’t stick to young people, don’t leave young people marginalized because of their age.
9. “You look like my grandma.”
While most likely meant as a compliment, these words stereotype women as being primarily in nurturing roles, especially later in their lives.
10. “The older generation let us down on social justice issues, so why should we care about them?”
Stop blaming the victims!!

Older man cuddling catIn a cis-gendered white man dominated society ageism is used to silence older women. It’s a continuation of the objectification that starts early in the life of every woman. Older women are regarded as the sum of their body parts, parts that are stereotypically seen as wrinkled, sagging, graying and useless. Men dismiss the educational achievements and work of older women as a means of devaluing the contributions they make. The vegan animal rights movement has yet to acknowledge ageism or speak out against it. Instead, the older women who are in the movement support its man dominated leadership, both denying ageism exists and acting as apologists for the leadership. They tell those who mention ageism to not take themselves so seriously. Ageism is not a joke to be laughed off and forgotten. Vegans seem to at least recognize the words racism, sexism, classism, ableism and speciesism, but ageism is consistently left off that list of oppressions. At best, it is seen as a single issue campaign within the vegan movement, an object for disdain that distracts from the mission of saving other animals. Mark these words: The vegan social movement will not survive as long as it practices oppression against one group in order to elevate the needs of another group.


1 Kyriarchy is used in this essay to refer to networks or systems of interactive oppressions. The word emerged from the work of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. It is taken from the Greek kyrios, meaning lord or master, and archo, meaning to govern. It is considered a more inclusive and expansive term than patriarchy.

2 The use of “Hispanic” in this reference is based on the US Census Bureau definition: “People who identify with the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” are those who classify themselves in one of the specific Hispanic or Latino categories listed on the decennial census questionnaire and various Census Bureau survey questionnaires – “Mexican, Mexican Am., Chicano” or ”Puerto Rican” or “Cuban” – as well as those who indicate that they are “another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” Origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s ancestors before their arrival in the United States. People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.” While it is not an optimal definition, it was all that was available for this data set. Much work needs to be done in defining and mapping the use of such categories. http://www.census.gov/population/hispanic/

Cavanagh, K. (2010, July 15). Pamela Anderson’s sexy body-baring PETA ad gets banned in Canada. Retrieved from NY Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/pamela-anderson-sexy-body-baring-peta-ad-banned-canada-article-1.463753

Grumpy Old Vegans. (2015, May 12). Grumpy Old Vegans. Retrieved from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GrumpyOldVegan?fref=ts

Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (n.d.). On Stigma and its Public Health Implications. Retrieved from http://www.stigmaconference.nih.gov/LinkPaper.htm

PeTA. (2014). PeTA’s 2014 Sexiest Vegan Over 50 Contest. Retrieved from PeTA Prime: http://prime.peta.org/sexiest-vegan-over-50-contest/details

Shuttleworth, A. (2013, July 8). Are negative stereotypes about older people bad for their health? Retrieved from NursingTimes.net: http://www.nursingtimes.net/opinion/practice-team-blog/are-negative-stereotypes-about-older-people-bad-for-their-health/5060639.blog

The Senior Citizen Times. (2011, November 23). Top 20 stereotypes of older people. Retrieved from The Senior Citizen Times: http://the-senior-citizen-times.com/2011/11/23/top-20-stereotypes-of-older-people/

Toronto Vegetarian Association. (2015, April). Toronto Vegetarian Association. Retrieved from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/torontoveg/permalink/10152808399662686/

Wider Opportunities for Women. (2012). Doing Without: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans. http://www.wowonline.org/documents/OlderAmericansGenderbriefFINAL.pdf.

Wider Opportunities for Women. (2012). Doing Without: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans. http://www.wowonline.org/documents/OlderAmericansGenderbriefFINAL.pdf.


Michele Spino MartindillDr. Martindill earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Missouri and taught there in the Sociology Department, the Peace Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Her areas of emphasis include political sociology, organizations and work, and social inequalities. Dr. Martindill’s dissertation focuses on the no-kill shelter social movement and is based on ethnographic research conducted during several years of working in an animal shelter. She is vegan, a feminist and is currently interested in the stories women tell through their needlework, including crochet, counted cross stitch and quilting. It is important to note that Dr. Martindill consistently uses her academic title in order to inspire women and members of other marginalized groups to pursue their dreams no matter what challenges those dreams may entail, and certainly one of her goals is to see more women in academia.

The $29.00 Vegan Poverty Challenge: Classism, Patriarchy and Animal Rights

By Dr. C. Michele Martindill

Let’s play the Gwyneth Paltrow Game, the ultimate food challenge! In this game each one of us has exactly $29.00 to spend on our food for one week and by playing the game we should all learn what it means to live in poverty—at least that’s what we’re supposed to learn according to the #FoodBankNYCChallenge. This $29.00 a week food challenge involves celebrities tagging each other in a game to try and subsist on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) weekly food budget of those living in poverty in the United States. Chef Mario Batali challenged Hollywood personality Gwyneth Paltrow and in turn, sparked a global…well, national…discussion about many things, but not poverty. As observed in numerous online Facebook chats, not even vegan feminist abolitionists could resist this game. How does it work, you ask? In accepting the challenge, Paltrow agreed for one week to eat only what she could purchase with $29.00 and made her purchases public news–one dozen eggs, lettuce, dried black beans, frozen peas, an onion, parsley, a sweet potato, green onions, brown rice, some garlic, a single tomato, one ear of corn, soft tortillas, one chili pepper and seven limes. NOTE: Paltrow confessed she only lasted four days before feasting on “…chicken and fresh vegetables (and in full transparency, half a bag of black licorice)” (Johnson, 2015). That’s the definition of privilege—knowing all along she didn’t really have to stick with the budget.

Family playing board game

Family playing board game and learning lessons of life.

So, how much have people who followed this story and discussed Paltrow’s shopping trip haul learned about poverty? What are members of the vegan feminist abolitionist movement taking away from the latest Paltrow media frenzy? Here is an opportunity to think reflexively about the white, classist and masculinized privilege that permeates the vegan abolitionist movement, to decenter the vegan perspective and achieve some kind of empathic understanding for those most affected by poverty—women and children.

Before looking at the vegan response to the Paltrow food budget, it is necessary to provide some context for the story. At least twice in the last week vegan abolitionist organizations made disparaging remarks about people looking for jobs in their organizations, and they were ostensibly referring to poor people or the working poor—the very people who don’t see a $29.00 food budget as a game. One author elaborated on why no one should donate to groups requesting help with vegan education and no one should expect to find work in the vegan abolitionist community:

So many ‘advocates’ are attempting to solicit donations to help with vegan education. If you have any spare cash you wish to donate to a worthy cause, please send it to where it will be used to directly help the underprivileged rather than to fund the business or living expenses of organisations or individuals involved in such activities. A conflict of interests–between wanting to end animal use and profiting from attempting to persuade others to end their participation in animal use–is inevitable when donations are needed to indirectly support work of this nature and there is something rather distasteful about those arrogant enough to hold the opinion that their ‘work’ is so valuable that others should provide the means to undertake it. (Grumpy Old Vegans, 2015)

The author is correct in recommending potential donors take care in knowing how their contributions will be used. It is also entirely possible that the author is warning people that vegan organizations should resist the pull of becoming large capitalist corporations with high salaried staff and executives who do little to stop animal exploitation, but do provide padded salaries to executives (Ritzer, 1975). One message is clear: there is no way to both end animal use and profit from the donations of supporters. As Corey Wrenn pointed out in an essay (Wrenn, 2015), there is no way to end animal oppression through capitalism when it is capitalism that is responsible for the oppression in the first place. Still, the language of the above rejoinder was not specifically anti-capitalist and sends a different message to those who might be looking for work just to survive, to be able to feed their families on something more than $29.00 per person per week. Someone could easily understand the author to mean that it is “distasteful” and “arrogant” for anyone—even someone living in poverty—to think their work is valuable enough to deserve a living wage. It was the first, but not last, vegan missive this week to demonstrate how much the vegan abolitionist movement needs to learn about living in poverty.

Women looking for job at job fair

Another statement made by a different vegan abolitionist organization correctly establishes how the animal rights movement loses momentum when organizations try to stand out from the crowd and make names for themselves by embracing single issue campaigns or doing other things just to garner donations. This group takes a stumble, though, when it presents the following:

Unfortunately, the problem can extend beyond the organizational level. It can threaten our movement even at the grass roots. Individual would-be advocates sometimes become more focused on carving out an activist identity and brand for themselves than on sincerely contributing to a movement focused on nonviolent abolitionist vegan education. Their motivating question switches from “How can I use my skills and opportunities to bring about a world where humans treat animals and each other with respect?” to “How can I differentiate myself from my fellow advocates?” Often due to a simple need for attention and acknowledgment (and, troublingly, sometimes due to the hope of a job, money, or future speaking opportunities) many thoughtful advocates have been driven toward brand-building and self-promotion. [Emphasis added] (International Vegan Association, 2015)

The author stresses that would-be vegan educators too often just want “attention” and maybe hope for a job or some other form of remuneration. That assumption is understandable from the perspective of the dominant white upper middle class ideology of the animal rights movement, but when seen through the eyes of people living in poverty the statement is problematic. Not everyone can afford the time, financial resources or the energy to be a vegan educator unless they are compensated for the effort—certainly not the working poor who often depend on multiple jobs just to survive. It can feel disheartening to want to help and yet know the organization is only interested in those who have time, money and energy to provide on a volunteer basis—and worse, to read that the poor actually “threaten our movement.” Telling a person that the only thing that matters is for them to “go vegan” won’t help them get over feelings of being on the outside of the movement and different from those who are able to be fully invested activists.

No, not every vegan abolitionist or animal rights organization collects donations, applies for and receives grant money or has resources available to hire paid staff members. The point being made here is that movement members have much to learn about living in poverty, and they need to refrain from calling those who seek jobs “disgraceful,” “arrogant,” “attention” seekers, or “threatening” to the movement. There is also no suggestion that vegans should get busy and cough up charitable donations for the poor. It is instead a call for solidarity. Charity moves from the top down. Solidarity, on the other hand, is horizontal with everyone standing side by side in mutual respect and possessing a willingness to learn. One example that stands out is a recent effort by the Vegan Intersecionality Project (V.I.P.) in Ireland that saw the organization stand in solidarity with squatters at the Grangegorman site, hearing their stories about police harassment and living in poverty (Vegan Information Project – VIP, 2015). The question remains, did vegan abolitionists miss the opportunity to stand in solidarity with people living in poverty in their analysis of the $29.00 per week per person food budget story? Unfortunately, their discussions did not hinge on poverty and would leave an outsider wondering about vegan priorities.

Poster stating charity is vertical and solidarity is horizontal

Among the first to respond to the circulation of the Gwyneth Paltrow story on Facebook were those who tried to explain what they would buy with only $29.00 to spend for groceries. One couple stated they already lived on approximately $100.00 a month or $25.00 per week. Others were quick to stress the value of bulk purchases of dried beans and frozen fruit. Oatmeal was a popular choice due in part to its low cost per meal. There was some debate over whether the rules of the challenge allowed for use of staples already on hand, e.g. spices and flour. It was established that they do not. Someone mentioned they would make use of the local food pantry, and the advice was offered that local farmers markets will count each dollar of food stamps as two dollars, up to a maximum of fifteen dollars—yet another helpful suggestion.

Questions were raised in other discussions about Gwyneth Paltrow’s food choices, thanks in large part to a Mother Jones (Oh, 2015) article that suggested the selected foods would only be good for a de-tox diet. At that point things deteriorated into a Gwyneth lovers vs. Gwyneth haters debate. Moving on to the next conversation there was finally someone—one woman–who voiced several key concerns, including: 1) society does not need a wealthy celebrity to explain how SNAP works, how SNAP doesn’t provide enough money for an adequate diet or to pretend to live on a SNAP food budget; 2) society will unfortunately not believe anything unless a celebrity says it; and 3) why doesn’t anybody ask SNAP recipients about their experiences? Why is it that only the voices of privilege are sought after and heard?

Poster for Equal Pay Day, April 14, 2015

Ironically, the Paltrow budget game coincided with #EQUALPAYDAY on April 14, 2015, a day meant to bring to everyone’s attention to the fact that women only make 78 cents to every dollar made by men, a pay gap that has held steady for approximately ten years (The Editorial Board, 2015). Women without any advanced degrees make only 74 percent of what men make. Other facts about poverty were mentioned in the equal pay stories. According to 2013 census figures, there are 46.5 million people in the United States living in poverty. Single-mother families living in poverty number 4.1 million, and the child poverty rate remained steady at 21.8 percent. How many of these people—very real people, not just statistics—are on food stamps? 15.8 million! That translates to 13.6 percent of all U.S. households—the highest level ever. Just over half of these households live below the poverty line and just over 40 percent have at least one person in the household who has a disability. Women comprise almost two-thirds of minimum wage earners, and mothers are the primary or sole earners in about forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 (Shriver, 2014). Think again about why the world turned to Gwyneth Paltrow to educate everyone about poverty and food stamps. Aren’t there enough people, especially women, living in poverty who could teach us much more? These numbers barely begin to convey the realities of life for those living in poverty, but we continue to make the faces of these women invisible and their voices remain unheard.

Here’s one last observation about the vegans who played the Paltrow game and those who described people looking for work with utter contempt—at a time when the vegan abolitionist movement is trying to demonstrate its intersectionality through practice and to show that veganism is not just a diet, it is interesting that they managed to ignore their own privilege and its consequences. Women living in poverty are not statistical objects who just need to go vegan and poverty is not a game.



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International Vegan Association. (2015, April 8). International Vegan Association. Retrieved from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/internationalvegan?fref=ts

Johnson, Z. (2015, April 16). eonline. Retrieved from E!: http://www.eonline.com/news/647045/gwyneth-paltrow-admits-she-cheated-on-her-29-food-bank-challenge-after-four-days-i-would-give-myself-a-c

Oh, I. (2015, April 12). Gwyneth Paltrow Confuses Her Latest Master Cleanse with Attempt to Relate to the Poor. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2015/04/gwyneth-paltrows-latest-master-cleanse-people-food-stamps

Ritzer, G. (1975). Professionalization, Bureaucratization and Rationalization: The Views of Max Weber. Social Forces, 627-634.

Shriver, M. (2014, January 8). The Female Face of Poverty. Retrieved from The Atlantic : http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-female-face-of-poverty/282892/

The Editorial Board. (2015, April 14). Women Still Earn a Lot Less Than Men. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/14/opinion/women-still-earn-a-lot-less-than-men.html

Vegan Information Project – VIP. (2015, March 24). Vegan Information Project – VIP. Retrieved from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theveganinformationproject?fref=ts

Wrenn, C. (2015, January 9). On the Problems with Open Rescues: A Response to the DXE Position. Retrieved from The Academic Abolitionist Vegan: http://academicabolitionistvegan.blogspot.com/2015/01/on-problems-with-open-rescues-response.html